How a museum robbery lead to a bizarre story about feather fetishists

by Linda Herrick / 15 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Kirk Wallace Johnson The Feather Thief

Kirk Wallace  Johnson.

When Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about the theft of 299 rare birds skins, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

As headlines go, this from the BBC in November 2010, “Flute player admits theft of 299 rare bird skins”, would be hard to beat. The “flute player”, a young American musical prodigy studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, was Edwin Rist. He was also an expert at tying salmon flies and hankered to replicate Victorian “recipes” using feathers from banned exotic species.

The investigation of his theft, from the Natural History Museum in Tring, north of London, is the central pivot of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s ripping yarn The Feather Thief. But Johnson’s research, including assistance from Sir David Attenborough, also allowed him to roam along linking paths, from examples of obsessive Victorian bird-specimen collecting through to a contemporary, slightly sinister international network of fly-tying fetishists known as “the feather underground”. They trade via eBay and websites with such names as FeathersMC.com.

Johnson, founder of the List Project, which seeks to resettle Iraqi US allies, stumbled on Rist’s story by chance. Debilitated both by an accident in Fallujah and his work with List, he was fly fishing in New Mexico when his guide told him about the court case. “The sheer weirdness of the story” took five years to uncover, turning into an obsession of his own. At one stage, he felt compelled to hire a bodyguard.

Johnson’s narrative opens in 1852 with English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, aboard a ship full of more than 10,000 dead and live “specimens” ablaze and sinking off the coast of Bermuda. Wallace survived and moved on to the Malay Archipelago and New Guinea, where his eyes were on the prize of the greater bird-of-paradise.

Many of his specimens were originally stored in the British Museum, but moved to countryside museums such as Tring after it was bombed during World War II.

Johnson draws the threads together as he details Tring museum’s connections to the wealthy Rothschild family; the extinction of species in the name of feathered fashion; and the rise of conservation movements in parallel with the eccentric “Victorian Brotherhood of Fly-Tiers”, who insisted on the exotic species recipes so revered by today’s feather fetishists.

When Johnson swings his scrutiny directly on to Rist, we meet a nerdy home-schooled kid who became a tying expert frustrated by the lack of legal access to “real” feathers.

His crime, which caused significant damage to scientific research, was carefully planned, but after its eventual unravelling, Johnson devoted a huge number of resources to try to track down unrecovered specimens and Rist himself. During his long interview with Rist, one thing sticks out: a complete lack of remorse.

The trading of Tring specimens is probably continuing. Johnson’s haunting book concludes with his deduction that there are two currents of humanity running through the Tring story: humans who fight for the preservation of species and the pursuit of knowledge. And then there are those who, over the centuries, “looted the skies and forests for wealth and status, driven by greed”. Rist is one of those people.

THE FEATHER THIEF, by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Hutchinson, $38)

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture clash behind ‘The Piano’ ballet
104740 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Movies

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture c…

by Russell Baillie

Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.

Read more
How this remarkable native insect is being saved
104836 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

How this remarkable native insect is being saved

by Jenny Nicholls

Principles of bird conservation are helping to save another remarkable native you’ve never heard of.

Read more
Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak report's honesty
104868 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak…

by RNZ

The Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said she was proud of the report's honesty and it was an important stocktake for the country.

Read more
The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more
Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition
104844 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Win

Win a copy of Sir David Attenborough's Life on Ear…

by The Listener

To celebrate Sir David Attenborough season on Sky, we are giving away copies of his book Life on Earth: 40th Anniversary Edition.

Read more
The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Queenstown launch
104788 2019-04-18 09:00:50Z Profiles

The Kiwi behind the powerful Aspen Institute's Que…

by Clare de Lore

Thanks to the determination of Christine Maiden, NZ has joined an international leadership network that aims to work on issues important to the future

Read more
Science must trump ideology in the GE debate
104784 2019-04-18 08:52:29Z Politics

Science must trump ideology in the GE debate

by The Listener

A New Zealand-developed super-grass that appears to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be blocked in this country by the Green Party.

Read more