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A fly-tying flutist’s bizarre theft highlights the importance of natural history collections

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

Kirk Wallace Johnson
Viking
2018
336 pp.
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On 23 June 2009, after closing time, Edwin Rist broke a pane of glass at the back of the Natural History Museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, U.K., and lowered himself into the quiet, darkened building. Within a few hours, he had hauled armfuls of bird skins—some of which had been collected more than a century earlier—from drawers and stowed them in a cavernous suitcase on wheels. Rist walked through the darkness to the train station, caught the 3:54 a.m. train to London, and disappeared. The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson is a true and carefully researched account of Rist’s incredible theft and what came afterward.

In 2011, Johnson was fly-fishing for trout in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico when his guide told him about the bird heist. A few years before, while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Johnson had overseen the postwar reconstruction of Fallujah, in Iraq. After falling from a window in a posttraumatic stress disorder–induced dream state, he returned to the United States to recover, later establishing the List Project—a nonprofit effort to relocate Iraqis who had assisted the U.S. forces in Iraq.

Johnson was tired and frustrated and needed a distraction. Enter Edwin Rist, an odd, lanky American flute prodigy.

The avian collection at the Natural History Museum at Tring is vast. It contains almost a million bird skins, 15,000 skeletons, 17,000 birds preserved in fluid, 4000 bird nests, and about 400,000 eggs. Rist’s theft wasn’t even discovered for a month.

Increasingly, natural history collections have to find newer and more sophisticated ways to protect their holdings. In 2016, more than a dozen members of the Dead Zoo Gang were convicted in British courts of selling rhinoceros horns stolen from museums on the black market. Elsewhere, irreplaceable fossils have disappeared; rare bird eggs have been taken; shell collections have been ransacked.

Brightly colored and endangered in life, the specimens Rist took—299 in total— were irreplaceable. Many of them had been collected by Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1850s: birds-of-paradise, red-ruffed fruitcrows, spangled cotingas, resplendent quetzals.

A contemporary of Charles Darwin’s, Wallace had dodged death countless times for the birds. But their theft was made worse by what Rist intended to do with them: He planned to dismantle them.

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Feathers from rare birds are prized in some fly-fishing communities.

This is where the story takes an unexpected and entertaining swerve. Rist, we learn, planned to sell the feathers into the strange shadowy world of Victorian fly-tying to be used as raw materials.

Years earlier, as a teenager in upstate New York, Rist—homeschooled and socially awkward—had become a world-renowned fly-tyer. He videotaped himself creating his elaborate patterns, posting them online to global oohs and aahs. He was invited to conventions to tie flies before rapt audiences. In that world, he was a global star.

The feathers Rist extracted from the specimens he stole eventually made it across the world—via eBay, through online bulletin boards, and sold in person at fly-tying conventions. Once they were separated from their biodata, the birds became worthless to science.

But a determined Johnson spent years trying to track down the remaining intact birds and their feathers, a tattered list of which he always kept in his pocket. Perhaps, he thought, if he found specimens with their labels attached, he could return them to the museum.

Johnson is a careful guide. He attends the fly-tying conventions. He meets the tight-lipped men who want the feathers. He flies to Dusseldorf and Sweden to interview fly-tyers, and some of Rist’s possible accomplices, all with his list in his pocket.

Rist had performed at the London Royal Academy of Music hours before the break-in on 23 June. He intended to buy a new flute with the proceeds from the sale of the feathers. Instead, he received a 12-month suspended prison sentence and was fined £125,150 under the Proceeds of Crime Act. He avoided harsher punishment with a somewhat controversial defense: that he has autism spectrum disorder. (Not all were convinced.)

Out on the fringes of modern society, there are strange worlds that most of us don’t glimpse. The world of fly-tying is one them; the quiet monastic storage rooms of natural history collections is another. The people who populate these spaces are shadows to us, too, until someone like Johnson lifts the veil.

The Feather Thief is an uncommon book. It could have been about nothing more than an ill person who did an odd thing. But it’s not. It entertains while it educates. It informs and enlightens. It’s a heist story that manages to underline the enduring and continuing importance of natural history collections and their incredible value to science. We need more books like this one.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2017).