Minerals and Gems

A black and white photograph of the former Arsenal, an imposing brick building located at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue in what is now Central Park.

Minerals and gems have been part of the Museum since it opened in 1869. The AMNH purchased its first major mineral collection in 1874 from S.C.H. Bailey, a New York lawyer. Bailey's collection, numbering between 5,000 and 7,000 specimens, was displayed in the Old Arsenal Building at 64th St. and Fifth Avenue. In 1889, George F. Kunz, the gemologist nonpareil of Tiffany and Company, prepared a collection of "Gems and Precious Stones from North America" for the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The collection of 382 entries won a gold medal, and after 5 months of haggling over a price, Museum Trustee J.P. Morgan came up with $15,000 to purchase the collection. It became known as the Tiffany-Morgan Collection of Gems. The Norman Spang mineral collection, purchased by the Museum in 1890, eclipsed the older Bailey collection in quality and quantity.

A black and white photograph of J.P. Morgan in a waistcoat, tie, and coat.

J.P. Morgan's largesse extended into the 20th Century. In 1900 Morgan commissioned Kunz to acquire fabulous specimens from around the world. This collection, the second Tiffany-Morgan collection, along with the first consisted of 2,176 specimens and 2,442 pearls. In 1901 Morgan paid $100,000 for the extraordinary 12,300-specimen collection of Clarence S. Bement, a Philadelphia industrialist. Minerals were Bement's abiding passion. He always desired to own the very best specimens, and to this end he was eminently successful. When the late Harvard mineralogist Charles Palache saw the collection for the first time in 1898 he wrote, "All day I have feasted my eyes on minerals such as I scarcely dreamed existed." Two railroad boxcars were required to transfer the collection to the Museum.

Two crystals, cut with facets, with a caption superimposed at the bottom of the photo stating: "Bement collection: sulfur crystals from Sicily."

In 1930, William Boyce Thompson, founder of the Newmont Mining corporation, willed his extensive collection of minerals and gemstone carvings to the AMNH. Thompson's mineral collection had its infancy in his New York office: here he deposited specimens acquired during his travels or presented to him by friends and associates. Soon specimens began to crowd his desk and filled several cabinets. He moved the collection to his Yonkers mansion, where he had special rooms built to display the minerals and gems.

For over 200 years, Columbia University acquired specimens to produce one of the finest systematic mineral collections. In 1980, Columbia's Department of Geology sold 40,000 of these specimens to the AMNH. One of the great values of the Columbia collection is its diversity and scope. It was assembled more from a scientific than an esthetic viewpoint. Specimens were collected from mineralogically interesting localities regardless of whether the minerals were well-crystallized or not. Obscure localities in Germany, France, and particularly Russia are present in abundance.

Murph the Surf and the Great Jewel Robbery

Certainly, no history of the collection is complete without mention of its most notorious event: the caper on October 29, 1964, when Jack (Murph the Surf) Murphy and two accomplices made a daring robbery of the old Morgan Memorial Hall, getting away with the Star of India, the DeLong Star Ruby, the Midnight Star, the Schettler Emerald, many other stones and virtually all the diamonds. After having seen the movie "Topkapi", in which a fantastic robbery of the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey was staged, Murph decided the Morgan Hall could be entered in much the same way. After casing the joint, he and an accomplice hid on the upper floors of the Museum while another circled in a get-away car. Murph and company lowered themselves by rope from the upper floor and through an open window into the Morgan Hall. They literally raked the stones out of the cases, finding that only the Star of India had an alarm and the battery in it was dead. They escaped, but their bravado and open mouths led to an early arrest and return of most of the notable stones. The DeLong Star Ruby found its way into the underworld and had to be ransomed. In the end only a dozen or so stones were not returned. This unfortunately included all of the diamonds, many from the U.S. including the 14-carat Eagle Diamond. At that time it was the largest one recovered in the U.S., found in a glacial moraine near Eagle, Wisconsin. These unique diamond crystals were probably cut into stones and permanently lost, a real tragedy considering their unusual heritage.

The Museum's collections total in excess of 100,000 minerals and 3,700 gems. Approximately 5,000 specimens were until recently exhibited in the Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and the J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems. In that space, the amazing new Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals will open in the spring of 2021 with more than 5100 specimens.

Implementation of a new collections cataloging and data base system is complete and the catalog will eventually be made available for examination over the Internet. Inquiries and requests can be made to George Harlow or Jamie Newman.

For more information on the history of the mineral and gem collections, see the publications list. To find other museums with mineral collections, go to the web site of the Society of Mineral Museum Professionals.