The soap opera in southeastern Pennsylvania surrounding Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences mineral collections finally ended when, on June 15, the private sale of the Vaux gem and mineral collection was quashed.
ANS sold most of its gems and minerals collection last year in a private sale to three prominent collectors, Bryan Lees, Wayne Leicht, and Ian Bruce. According to firsthand reports, the collection of fine-quality gems was worth approximately $1 million. Subsequently, some of that collection was available for purchase in Tucson, Ariz., this past February.
But the Vaux collection was not part of the deal. ANS needed to break the Vaux trust to sell the collection, but the Vaux family objected to the sale and tried to have the collection moved to local Philadelphia colleges. Under new leadership, and foreseeing heavy legal fees and more bad publicity, ANS reconsidered. In a recent Philadelphia Inquirer interview, the new president, William Brown, said, “We have no higher priority than their stewardship.”
Not everyone opposed the sale of the rest of the mineral collection. “The Philadelphia Academy, which had long ago abandoned the earth sciences, had been strapped for cash for decades,” writes Wendell Wilson, editor for Mineralogical Record magazine. “There had not been a functioning mineralogy laboratory or a full-time curator of minerals there since the 1950s. The focus of the academy and its museum had shifted exclusively to the biological sciences, and there was no intention of ever again hiring a mineral curator or displaying the mineral collection. Consequently, the trustees voted to liquidate the mineral collection and use the money to endow the Academy’s library.”
Others take issue with that. “It is always of concern when a museum gets rid of a collection, as the collections are the foundation of a museum and held in public trust,” writes George Harlow, curator of minerals and gems for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“If you don’t hire anyone for the minerals department, then, of course, the minerals department will deteriorate,” says Jeffrey Post, curator for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s gems and minerals collection. “And if it deteriorates, then that gives them the impetus to sell off the collections. This is the reason we have the American Association of Museums guidelines, which state that if you sell any [part of a] collection, you use the resources to build that collection. It’s very easy to go down that other path.”
Rules or no, the fear is that donors will begin to think that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere, and decide not to donate to museums.
“Hire me as director,” said one mineralogist. “I’d build an incredible mineral collection. I know I could go to Philadelphians who feel strongly enough to save the mineral collection. We could have done it. No, they were absolutely determined to get rid of it. To pack it up and sell it off is the ultimate in irresponsibility. Museums should not be allowed to do it.”
But Wilson thinks the collection is better off now than it was. “Congratulations are definitely in order for Bryan Lees, Wayne Leicht, and Ian Bruce for successfully negotiating the deal to rescue this great collection from its ignominious dungeon, where further decay would certainly have taken place otherwise.”
ANS retains a small collection of minerals in the Seybert Collection, which was one of the Academy’s first collections and contains items from the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–06.