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Obsessed With Pretty Things With Feathers

A review by Ellen Paul

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Viking Press, 2018

308 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14870

Edwin Rist.

The name sounds Victorian. It sounds nefarious. It befits a man who would skulk through the dark streets of Tring, England, where the Victorian-era home of the second Lord Rothschild housed the bird collection of London’s Museum of Natural History. Using a glass cutter–a low-tech Victorian-era invention–Rist tried to break a back window. When that failed, he used a no-tech rock. Once inside the museum, he purloined nearly three hundred bird skins, including some collected by the Victorian-era naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace on his excursion to the Malay Archipelago. 

Rist, though, was no Victorian dastard. The World Wide Web arrived when Rist was a toddler of two. By the time he was a pre-teen obsessed with finding feathers of brilliant hue for his fly-tying hobby, eBay was ready and waiting to sate his appetite for the plumage of rare birds. Ignoring the warnings of experienced fly-tyers about international restrictions on trade, he sought out the rich blues of cotingas, the flaming reds of birds of paradise, and the citrine adornments of Flame Bowerbirds. At the age of sixteen, he had reached the upper echelons of fly-tying. At his level, this was more than just a pastime. Indeed, Rist described it with language that will sound familiar to serious birders: “Fly-tying is not merely a hobby, it is an obsession we seem to devote a substantial part of our time to.” The accumulation of material and gear, the endless thirsting after the impossibly rare, the British Fly Fair International–odious though Rist might be, birders can’t help but understand this addiction. 

Obsession served Rist well in other ways. His dedication to the flute started in grade school; at age 17, his talents landed him a spot at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. Was it a coincidence that England was the wellspring of artistic fly-tying? When Rist left the U.S, one of his fly-tying mentors gave him a parting gift–photos of the avian treasures of the Tring Museum. 

Kirk Wallace Johnson knows how to tell a story. It takes real skill to start a tale by giving away the horrific ending, then backtracking through 100 years of the history of the various threads from which the event would be woven. It works because Johnson tells the story as he himself discovered it; his own fascination is evident and infectious.

Even readers who are already thoroughly familiar with the collecting expeditions of Alfred Russel Wallace in the Malay Archipelago will be drawn in by Johnson’s recounting of the Victorian explorer’s early years, his Brazilian expedition and its tragic end, and his passion for the birds of paradise, birds never before observed in the wild by a professional, Western naturalist.

Next time you gripe about the arduous schlep of 24 hours or so to reach this region, remember that Wallace set sail in January 1854. The ship’s sailing orders were canceled after weeks at sea, and Wallace had to return to England, where in March he boarded another ship, then another in Egypt, then a third in Ceylon. In April 1854, he finally arrived in Singapore, where he commenced his eight years of meandering through paradise. What birder wouldn’t give her first-born child for a chance to spend years in this region rather than the typical three-week dash of a birding trip?

It took three years for Wallace to finally see a bird of paradise, when hunters he had engaged emerged from the forests of Wargion (Waigeo) Island with a King Bird of Paradise. Ultimately, Wallace acquired over 8,000 bird specimens, including five species of birds of paradise, before he returned to England in 1862. The specimens were deposited in the collections of the British Museum, now the Natural History Museum. 

Which brings the story around to the second Lord Rothschild, born one year before Wallace published The Malay Archipelago in 1869. While living at Tring Park as a youngster, he became fascinated with taxidermy and, with the obsessiveness characteristic of both birders and fly-tyers, by the age of twenty, he had accumulated over 40,000 specimens of insects and birds, housed in a museum his father built for him. Johnson paints a rich portrait of this eccentric naturalist, who would have been thrilled to know that during World War II, his private museum sheltered the bird skins collected by Wallace and Darwin, keeping them safe from the bombs falling on the British Museum. There they remained, along with the rest of the museum’s bird collection, until Rist came along. 

Johnson then turns his attention to the feather trade. Birders know both the broad outline and many of the details of this story, including the campaign of American women, mainly East Coasters, to halt the slaughter of birds for millinery. Johnson’s narrative adds historical information and texture to the story; more importantly, it shines a light on another corner of the feather trade that few birders–and, apparently, few museum professionals–ever knew existed. In 1842, a fetishistic art form of fly tying took hold when W. Blackley’s Complete System of Fly Making urged the use of such exotica as the Resplendent Quetzal and birds of paradise. No doubt spurred by the ready availability of feathers imported by the ton for the millinery trade, it persisted long after the legal feather trade ended in the U.S. in 1913.

Some 166 years after the publication of Blackley’s System, Edwin Rist, in need of feathers and in need of money for a new flute, decided to case out the museum in Tring. Posing as a photographer helping a friend who was writing a dissertation, he paid a visit in 2008 to photograph the birds of paradise collected by Wallace, then plotted his illicit return in 2009.

Though the break-in was detected the very next day, no one realized until a month later that hundreds of irreplaceable bird skins were missing, among them some of Wallace’s. All that time, Rist was busy plucking and packaging feathers, preparing them for sale. News of the theft spread quickly through the fly-tying world, but Rist took the risk to put many up for sale that October. In his view, the skins had little value, so no one would make much effort to find them. His buyers asked no questions.

A year went by and the case went cold until 2010, when an Irish fly-tyer who happened to have a background in law enforcement visited a fly-tying fair in Holland. There he became intrigued by a rare bird clearly prepared as a museum skin. Learning that it had come from a “kid in England named Rist,” he checked out Rist’s listings on the fly-tying forum and then alerted the police in England. By that time, only 174 of the stolen specimens remained intact, and only 102 retained their labels.  

Writers sometimes find themselves in a situation that becomes a story. Johnson’s first book recounted his experience as a USAID worker in the effort to re-build Iraq and his subsequent effort to help Iraqis who had worked with the U.S. military and other organizations emigrate to the U.S.  This time, though, Johnson was an outsider, not part of the scientific community affected by the theft. He had no knowledge of the episode until a fishing buddy mentioned it to him.

Johnson had taken up fishing as a way to cope with the trauma he’d experienced in Iraq. Now he began to try to track the feathers and skins stolen by Rist. He visited or spoke to fly-tyers all over the world, including a very sad figure who helped Rist sell the feathers. This young Vietnamese man living in Norway seemingly suffered greatly from his complicity in the affair, unlike Rist, who skated away virtually unscathed, legally and emotionally.

Though he was convicted after a guilty plea, the court bought Rist’s specious defense of Asperger syndrome and imposed a suspended twelve-month sentence and a fine that would never be paid. Rist now roams Europe and North America as a professional flutist. As recently as 2015, he was reportedly still making flies under the name “Captain Hook.”

Johnson finally persuaded Rist to sit for an interview in 2014. This may be the toughest chapter to read. Not only is Rist unrepentant, he all but admits to Johnson that the Asperger diagnosis that kept him out of prison was concocted. He challenges the number of skins taken, saying that the museum would not have conducted inventories, meaning that some might have gone missing before his heist. He says that he doesn’t even feel like a thief.

Though Johnson had now become part of the story, he was not so entirely immersed that he would wring Rist’s neck on behalf of his future readers.

This brilliant book is a tough read simply because it is a brilliant telling of a terrible story. The rage and anguish provoked by Rist’s destruction of so many specimens documenting so much of our most precious avifauna makes it difficult to turn the pages. And as Johnson makes abundantly clear, the trade in the feathers of these birds continues at fly-tying fairs, on internet forums, and on eBay.

See for yourself. Visit featheremporium.com. Look at all those CITES Appendix I cockatoo feathers. Macaws. Sure, some of these species are bred in captivity in the U.S. Even the Monal Pheasant is bred in captivity. Sanctuaries that take in unwanted pet birds apparently sell molted feathers to raise money. But prices are high and the supply limited. And species such as the Pompadour Cotinga? Bred in only a few zoos. Are some of these feathers pilfered from museum collections? Even today, prepared skins can be found at fly-tying shows, as the Yale ornithologist Rick Prum learned when the Rist case alerted him to this obscure relict of the feather trade and he visited one of these events.

Some of those feathers must have been taken from the wild. Even non-CITES species can’t be imported legally unless they were collected legally in the country of origin and exported under permits. Keeping an eye on eBay, Johnson occasionally finds feathers of the King Bird of Paradise advertised. He feels certain that these feathers come from the Tring specimens stolen by Rist. 

Johnson did not escape the lure. He is now yearning for a trip to West Papua to see the King Bird of Paradise. He is even learning to prepare museum specimens. Meanwhile, this book looks to be a best-seller, and if so, all to the good, as it may raise awareness of the importance of museum collections. One can only hope that it will also spur increased security and vigilance among natural history museums and increased law enforcement efforts around the world.

Ellen Paul is Executive Director of the Ornithological Council, a consortium of 11 scientific societies of ornithologists in the Western Hemisphere. She lives to bird and regrets having wasted the first 31 years of her life engaging in non-birding activity. She plans to make up for it in her next life.

Recommended citation:

Paul, E. 2018. Obsessed With Pretty Things With Feathers [a review of The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural HIstory Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson]. Birding 50 (4): 69-71.

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