Meteorites 2649Nedic 17 06 2024

‘On Meteorites’, a detail of a meteorite in watercolour. The archive sold for £1200 at Thomson Roddick Callan.

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Nestled between a manuscript detailing old Scottish legal opinions and a collection of signed 1960s theatre programmes was Lot 107, an unassuming bound notebook, part filled with cuttings, manuscript notes and watercolour sketches and titled ‘On Meteorites’. Consigned by a local Cumbrian vendor and estimated at £30-50, keen pre-sale interest indicated that the lot might be something special.

On flicking through the photographs uploaded online, it was apparent that ‘On Meteorites’ had been the work of someone who was intimately familiar with the Meteorite collection held at the South Kensington Museum (later known as the  Natural History Museum) towards the end of the 19th century. Handwritten in sepia ink, the following was described:

‘The South Kensington Collection – On entering the building, pass the skeleton of the whale in the central hall, and around the staircase to the right, turn to the right at the top of the stairs and pass the cases of stuffed waterbirds … on reaching the end of that gallery, turn to the left, through the doors, into the mineralogical collection, and passing through that, reach the Meteorite Collection at the end of the room; (called in the Museum, “The Pavilion”).

The Meteors are in three sets of cases, and are supplemented by large specimens on separate pedestals.

Mr Ruskin’s magnificent collection of Silica varieties is in the same room and is beautifully arranged and catalogued …’

Were these just the detailed observations of a keen amateur? Or intriguingly could these have been the working notes and drawings for a future meteor catalogue, by someone who worked at the museum at the time? Understanding how the mineralogical department was set up might shed some light on the author of the notebook.

Meteorites 2649Nedia 17 06 2024

‘On Meteorites’, exterior binding. The archive sold for £1200 at Thomson Roddick Callan.

British Museum’s meteorite collection

The British Museum is a public museum which documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present, and was the first museum dedicated to human history, art and culture. Established in 1753 in Bloomsbury, it first opened to the public in 1759 and expanded over the following 250 years. This was largely due to the acquisitive nature of British colonisation, and resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, or independent spin-offs, the first being the Natural History Museum in South Kensington in 1881. 

The Natural History Museum houses probably the finest collection of natural specimens in the world, from fossils to botanicals and everything in between, and occupies a noble edifice of terracotta, designed by the late Alfred Waterhouse in the 1870s at a cost of £400,000 (£41m in today’s money).

The meteorite collection started when the British Museum acquired three meteorites in 1802, just as people were beginning to accept the idea that meteorites were natural phenomena. The collection developed in fits and starts and grew to around 70 specimens under the first Keeper (or Head) of the Department of Natural History, but levelled off when the second Keeper (a palaeontologist) took over.

In 1857, the Department of Mineralogy was separated from Palaeontology, and the chemist Nevil Story-Maskelyne (1823-1911) became Keeper. Under his enthusiastic guidance the number of meteorites in the collection trebled. By the time the natural history section of the British Museum moved to South Kensington in 1883, the collection had grown to around 250 specimens, including material from Martian meteorites Chassigny and Shergotty.

It was at this point that a descriptive catalogue was prepared, and was referred to in the department as the ‘Crystallographic Catalogue’, which was a somewhat ambitious project started by Story-Maskelyne. Every specimen was registered and numbered, detailing the date of acquisition, the locality and date where found, and their physical and geometrical characteristics. Each sample was duly labelled with this information and exhibited in cases for the public to peruse.

The British geologist Dr Leonard James Spencer (1870-1959) joined the Department of Mineralogy in January 1894, working diligently on the catalogue started by Story-Maskelyne. He also rearranged some of the collections, setting up the meteorites in ‘The Pavilion’ between 1895-97. This dates the annotated notebook offered to after that date, as it states that the meteorites are located in ‘The Pavilion’.

Spencer was a prolific academic, publishing numerous journals on his ground breaking mineralogical research, and was made Keeper of Minerals at the Natural History Museum from December 1927 to July 1935. The Adelaide Advertiser of March 1931, on learning that the Natural History Museum was interested in acquiring a fragment of the enormous Karoonda Meteorite that had landed in Southern Australia in 1930, stated that ‘Dr L J Spencer MA, keeper of the mineral section at South Kensington … collects meteorites as other folk collect autographs or old china’.

Maybe there are other clues within the notebook as to the original author of ‘On Meteorites’, but it is a fascinating insight into the museum’s collection at the tail end of the Victorian era – a collection which has continued to grow by purchase, donation and exchange.

Competition on the phone and online led the notebook to eventually hammer down at an impressive £1200, won online by a Scandinavian buyer, 24 times higher than the pre-sale estimate.

As the auctioneer said to ATG: “It was a day full of pleasant surprises for unusual items.”