Stranger Than Fiction-April 2019

April 2019

Mysteries at the Museum

By Dean Jobb

Libraries, museums, and auction houses—while these are far from typical crime scenes, they have been the scenes of some surprising crimes. Four new books explore the black-market trade in dinosaur bones and animal specimens, a cache of bogus Viking artifacts that rewrote history, and a suspected arson attack on the Los Angeles Public Library.

The-Library-BookThe worst enemies of any library, notes Susan Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker, are fire and flood. Both struck the Los Angeles Central Library in April 1986 when the worst fire of its kind in American history destroyed more than 400,000 volumes, some dating to the sixteenth century. Flames, smoke and millions of gallons of water used to battle the blaze damaged 700,000 more. In The Library Book (Simon & Schuster), the acclaimed author of The Orchid Thief uses the fire and its aftermath as a springboard for an exploration of why libraries and books still matter in the digital age.

But libraries face another threat, this one in human form: Arsonists. There’s a crime at the heart of this story—or, more accurately, a possible crime. A would-be actor named Harry Peak rushed from the building when smoke detectors went off. Since everyone else, including the first firefighters on the scene, assumed it was a false alarm, this alone seemed suspicious.

Woven into this wonderful, absorbing ode to books and libraries is Orlean’s quest to discover if Peak, who died in 1993, set the fire. He bragged to friends that he did, but this is hardly conclusive—he was, in the estimation of his sister, “the biggest bullshitter in the world.”

Arson is a difficult crime to investigate and prosecute—any trace of the match used will be lost in the resulting inferno, Orlean notes, and the arsonist can be long gone before flames are noticed. “It is hard to imagine a more perfect crime than one in which the weapon disappears and the act itself can unfold almost unnoticeably.” And arson investigation is a contested, inexact science that has put many innocent people behind bars.

Did Peak set the fire? Orlean guides readers through the evidence with an open mind. The 1920s-era library was a firetrap. There were no sprinklers, and the building’s outdated wiring was as likely a culprit as a man with a match. But a crime was committed that day. When books are burned, whether through an accidental fire or in 1930s Nazi bonfires, it is a crime against humanity. “Books are a sort of cultural DNA,” Orlean writes. “Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”

 

The-Feather-ThiefDestroying natural history can be just as devastating to a culture. And if Kirk Wallace Johnson had not been an avid fly fisherman, he would never have heard about Edwin Rist’s crime. A young American concert musician studying in London, Rist was so determined to tie vintage feathered fishing flies that he broke into a branch of the British Museum of Natural History in 2009 and stole hundreds of priceless bird specimens, many of them endangered species. When a fishing guide told Johnson about the heist, he knew he had to tell this bizarre story of theft and obsession.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century (Viking) takes readers from the jungles of tropical Pacific islands, where naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Charles Darwin) collected some of the stolen specimens a century ago, to today’s online community of enthusiasts, like Rist, who are “marooned in the wrong century” and “addicted to rare and illegal feathers: practitioners of the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.”

This is an engrossing, brilliantly researched, and ultimately troubling book. Even though Rist’s burglary was amateurish, he almost escaped detection. By the time he was arrested, most of the specimens the police recovered had been stripped of feathers and identifying information that gave them scientific value. And the outcome of his prosecution for what one judge termed “a natural history disaster of world proportions” rates as a miscarriage of justice.

Johnson, obsessed with uncovering the truth, embarks on a mission to recover dozens of missing specimens—a journey that takes him to Britain, Germany, and Norway. Like Orlean, he laments a greater crime—the exploitation and destruction of the natural world. Millions of birds were slaughtered to make feathered hats for fashionable Victorian women. Countless others died to make salmon-fishing flies, even though, as Johnson points out, their colorful feathers did nothing to entice salmon to bite—they were nothing more than eye-candy for wealthy collectors.

“Should civilized man ever reach these distant lands,” Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the 1860s, after collecting thousands of insects and animals from islands near New Guinea, “we may be sure that he will so disturb . . . nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy.” The Feather Thief proves how far humans will go to possess or destroy.

 

The-Dinosaur-ArtistFrom the allure of vintage feathers to the burgeoning market for dinosaur bones. Paige Williams, who’s also a staff writer at The New Yorker, takes readers inside another world where scientists compete with obsessive collectors—a globe-spanning illegal trade in prehistoric bones and fossils. In The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy (Hachette Books), she recounts how an American fossil collector sold the skeleton of a relative of the feared Tyrannosaurus rex for one million dollars—and ignited an international debate “over who owns, or should be allowed to collect and own, natural history.”

The collector, Eric Prokopi, illegally imported fossilized dinosaur skulls smuggled out of Mongolia and enjoyed six-figure paydays—actors Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio, both avid collectors, were reputedly among his first customers—by peddling what one observer dubbed the “newest hot art objects.”

Williams’ narrative gallops through time and space at breakneck speed, dipping into the history of paleontology, early misconceptions about fossils, and even the political history of Mongolia. Memorable characters emerge, including pioneering British fossil collector Mary Anning and Roy Chapman Andrews, a flamboyant explorer and possible model for the character Indiana Jones. In the 1920s Andrews led the first American expeditions into the remote Gobi Desert—a “paleontological Garden of Eden,” noted one of his bosses at the American Museum of Natural History—and returned with the first dinosaur eggs ever collected.

This is the backdrop for Prokopi’s biggest gamble—the 2012 New York auction that spurred the Mongolian government to take legal action to recover the fearsome, twent-four-foot skeleton. It was seized and Prokopi, “a one-man black market in prehistoric fossils” according to federal prosecutors, was arrested and jailed. Williams can dig as well as any fossil hunter, and her vivid, thoroughly reported book captures the mystique and allure of these “remnants of a world long gone.”

 

BeardmoreProkopi’s bones and Rist’s feathers, at least, were authentic. Fake artifacts—or real ones planted in the wrong location—have the potential to rewrite history. Think of the Piltdown Man, the skull fragments of an early human discovered in Britain shortly before World War One and touted as the “missing link” between humans and apes for four decades, until exposed as a hoax.

“If authentic Viking relics were said to have been unearthed in a grave in the wilds of northern Ontario,” writes Canadian scholar Douglas Hunter, “the history of North America and Norse voyaging would require a serious overhaul.” Such relics were found, in the 1930s—and many experts and one of Canada’s leading museums thought they were authentic.

In Beardmore: The Viking Hoax That Rewrote History (McGill-Queens University Press), Hunter reveals how the curator of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum was duped into believing a prospector had found a cache of Viking relics—an axe head, shield handle, and broken sword—near the mining town of Beardmore, north of Lake Superior. The discovery, years before a true Viking settlement was unearthed on the Newfoundland coast, was seen as proof of European exploration of America centuries before Columbus.

Why were the artifacts accepted as genuine by so many for so long? This is the question at the heart of Hunter’s book. The short answer is a combination of wishful thinking and pride. The prospector, Eddy Dodd, and his supporters desperately wanted them to be real, and the museum’s curator, the aptly middle-named Charles Trick Currelly, and other scholars could not bear to admit they had been fooled by such a clumsy fraud.

Hunter provides the long answer in this book, which presents the story in all its surprising (and often confounding) twists and turns. He envisioned his narrative as a detective story, but as an academic his interests venture beyond the hoax itself and into an exploration of the “dynamics of power”—from professional relationships and reputations to petty jealousies and snobbery—that perpetuated it.           

Money, oddly, does not appear to have been a motive for the deception. Eddy sold the relics to the museum for a few thousand dollars in today’s terms, a pittance for items that should have been priceless. The far more serious fraud, in any event, was on the public, which was assured for years that the relics on display at the museum (and still exhibited, although without any claim of proving a Viking incursion deep into North America) had rewritten history.

Don’t expect to find police tape the next time you visit a museum or library. But these books are a reminder that the artifacts and books on display, or tucked away in storage, may have true crime stories to tell.

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Dean Jobb’s latest book, Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), tells the story of a 1920s Chicago swindler who pioneered the Ponzi scheme and escaped to a new life in Canada. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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