There are no signs to identify the donor of the minerals and ornamental rock carvings left to the American Museum of National History by William Boyce Thompson. Which is too bad, because the Colonel’s collection dominates the cave-like mineral room in the New York museum. He would steal the show.
That much was clear when this blogger toured the display cases earlier this year with the help of the very able Jamie Newman of the museum’s department of earth and planetary sciences. “That one was his,” Jamie pointed out. “That one, too,” she says. “And I believe that one as well….We’ll have to look it up.”
Later, armed with the museum’s inventory list, an article on the Thompson collection published in the September-October 1988 issue of Matrix, and photos of some specimens, the breadth of the Thompson collection becomes abundantly clear. The galleries aren’t even big enough to hold the entire Thompson collection, which numbers more than 1,500 mineral specimens, plus many carvings. Most of the treasures are hidden in carefully indexed boxes and drawers located in back rooms.
Thompson, who died in 1930, left minerals and carvings to the prestigious museum in his will, though the museum didn’t take actual possession of the collection until Mrs. Thompson (Gertrude Hickman) died in 1951. The Matrix article hints that the most valuable items in the Colonel’s collection remain in his family. In 1988, the museum valued its Thompson collection at about $100,000. Thompson told a Walter Douglas in 1927, according to the Matrix article, that in the previous year alone he had spent $1.5 million on stones and jade carvings. It’s the jade carvings, the article speculates, that remain in the family.
Thompson’s rock collection nicely compliments another major collection left to the museum by Philadelphia industrialist Clarence S. Bement. Bement, who pursued only the most refined specimens, collected his rocks during the 1865-to-1900 period. By contrast, Thompson’s collection, gathered during the first three decades of the 20th Century, is much more colorful. It was obtained from localities — Brazil, Tanzania, Colorado — known for producing boldly colored minerals.
“Colonel Thompson’s appreciation for large, showy, boldly-colored specimens was fortunate as it provides the Museum with exhibit-quality specimens which to a certain extent are lacking in the Bement collection,” wrote Charles L. Pearson and Joseph J. Peters in the Matrix article.
The honorary Colonel also left an endowment of between $50,000 or $70,000 (depending on the source) that the museum has used to purchase many outstanding mineral and gem specimens. Newman pointed out that the money was used to buy a 596-pound topaz crystal from Brazil, along with a beautiful black Australian opal, among other treasures on display in the museum. The company that Thompson founded, Newmont Mining Corporation, continued his legacy by donating several magnificent specimens that had been on display in the company’s New York headquarters building.
But enough with the background. I know you are dying to see some of Thompson’s showy pieces. We’ll tour the rock specimens in this blog, with some lame commentary. We’ll look at the carvings in a subsequent blog.
Now that the image has soaked in, I can tell you that the huge hunk of quartz above is from Minas Gerais, a state within Brazil. That’s about all I know about specimen number 37840. It looks like the underside of the top of a burnt-out Halloween pumpkin, or maybe a piece of purple pomegranate.
You have to look closely to see that the conglomerate above holds a diamond. It’s at 10 o’clock. This specimen also came from Minas Gerais in Brazil. Brazil provided nearly all the diamonds in Europe until about 1870.
This is a huge hunk of silver that came from Chihuahua, Mexico. Thompson bought it from Tiffany’s Panama Exposition Collection in 1916. This was his first major purchase, which we highlighted in a previous blog.
This yellow beauty is a big hunk of sulfur that came from Sicily. I told you his collection was colorful. Sicily, I’ve learned from a cursory scan of the web, is renown for its sulfur. Until the turn of the century before last, it was the world’s primary source of commercial sulfur. Dozens of mines dotted the island, most owned by aristocracies or monasteries. But mining sulfur in Sicily — which involved tunneling — was arduous and expensive. That’s why Sicily fell out of favor as a source for sulfur.
This is a big piece of pyrite that came from Colorado. Pyrite is commonly referred to as fools gold. It had me fooled, and I won’t be the last. It is commonly found alongside real gold, sometimes with quartz. It has a beautiful luster and interesting crystals.
This ravishing piece of rhodochrosite, which looks like a piece of cinnamon candy, hails from Sweet Honey, Colorado. It looks good enough to eat. Given its rose color, it must be a relatively pure form, from what I can gather on the web. Large red rhodochrosite crystals are only found in a few places on earth. And one of them is the Sweet Honey mine near Alma, Colorado. Silver miners used to routinely discard the manganese carbonate because it’s extremely destructive to the amalgamation process used in the concentration of silver ores.
This is a piece of crocoite from Tasmania, Australia. It may well be from the Adelaide Mine in Dundas, Tasmania, given that it looks just like some other pieces from that mine. The mine is known for producing some exceptional pieces, with long, slender, needle-like red prisms, 3 to 4 inches in length. Crocoite was only discovered in Tasmania in 1896. So here’s another example of how Thompson’s collection was contemporary for its time.
This is a piece of epidote, taken from Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. It was purchased by Thompson from the 1916 Panama Exposition Collection. Here’s the most important information about epidote; it’s a calcium aluminum iron sorosilicate mineral — say that three times real fast. And for the two people out there who might understand it, this is what it consists of: Ca2Al2(Fe3+;Al)(SiO4)(Si2O7)O(OH), crystallizing in the monoclinic system.
This is my favorite image, a labradorite from Newfoundland, Canada. Labradorite is a feldspar mineral, meaning that it crystallizes from magma. This particular piece is probably from Paul’s Island, near the town of Nain, in Labrador, Canada. Labradorite can also be found in Norway, among other places. The cool thing about this rock is that it looks like it has a blue electric current running through it. Technically, it shows a play of colors called labradorescence.