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An Early Collection

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In 1869, the year the Museum was incorporated, the Trustees turned to the critical task of building its collections. Within a few months, they sent Daniel Giraud Elliot, a noted ornithologist and naturalist, and Museum Trustee William T. Blodgett to negotiate the purchase of “certain collections of specimens in Natural History” in Europe.

Museum Exterior 1878
American Museum of Natural History exterior at Manhattan Square, 1878

At the top of the list were collections that had been gathered by a few notable naturalists: the Verreaux brothers, who assembled one of the largest collections in Europe; Monsieur Vedray of Paris, who had collected 250 mounted mammal specimens and rare Siberian birds; and Prince Maximilian zu Wied (1782–1867), an explorer from the German principality of Wied-Neuwied. Prince Maximilian’s collection “is regarded as one of the most important private collections in Europe, and has long been consulted by the scientific world,” wrote Blodgett in his report. “[It] contains a large number of types, the results of the Prince’s explorations in South America, and many rare specimens which [sic] have been secured at intervals during the period of a long lifetime.” It was a fantastic opportunity for the nascent Museum to acquire specimens that would form the nucleus of its holdings.

Ceratophrys dorsata
Ceratophrys dorsata from Wied's Abbildungen zur Naturgeschichte Brasiliens by Prince Maximilian, 1782-1867

Elliot and Blodgett ultimately purchased the prince’s 4,000 mounted birds, 600 mounted mammals, and about 2,000 fishes and reptiles, either mounted or in alcohol, for 1,500 pounds sterling—or approximately $200,000 today.

The value of the Maximilian collection lay largely in its diversity and the rarity of its specimens, which the prince—with his appetite for discovery, broad interests in the natural world, and resources to undertake overseas trips—was able to pursue over many decades. He even led two scientific expeditions to the New World, first to Brazil in 1815-17 and then to the United States in 1832–34, gathering thousands of specimens along the way. Researchers still study these today.

Psammobates geometricus
Psammobates geometricus

Prince Maximilian also acquired objects collected by others, including this South African geometric tortoise specimen, Psammobates geometricus, whose earlier history is unknown. Today, this species is considered endangered.

This story is adapted from an article in the Spring 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.