THE FEATHER THIEF is an American, Edwin Rist, who, at 20, broke into the Natural History Museum collection in the British town of Tring and stole a trove of Birds of Paradise and other irreplaceable bird skins. It would spoil the fun of the detective story to tell you what happens to Rist. Kirk Wallace Johnson did much sleuthing for The Feather Thief, ultimately landing an interview with him (hint: there’s a bodyguard secretly down the hall). In Rist, we meet a creepy, arrogant charmer.
But the shock of this story is a broader arrogance. Rist sells most of the feathers and skins online, some still with their museum tag, to a market of passionate hobbyists, men who reproduce Victorian designs for salmon flies.
The Feather Thief reminded me of that long list of TV shows about male sub-cultures with their own sub-ethics, starting with The Sopranos through Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Other people’s obsessions can be hard to swallow, but Johnson, a versatile storyteller, makes this world almost sympathetic, just like the TV shows do. Look at the “Vintage Fly Library” at ClassicFlyTying.com, and you’ll see the appeal. Fly-tying is masculine knitting, looping feathers in circles for hours at a time. These men don’t fish. They’re craftsmen, and, I intuit, nostalgic for an image of lost masculinity. As in the TV shows, the guys are finally creepy, as are other sub-cultures inspired by the Victorian era: those glommed onto whiskey, vampires, and dungeon S&M.
The flies are elaborate and beautiful. It’s no surprise when you learn that the salmon don’t know the difference. Trout flies attempt to mimic the movement of specific insects favored at certain spots, and in certain seasons and hours, by trout. Salmon bite not to eat but to defend their eggs from a foreign object. As Johnson puts it, “Salmon can be caught with dog fur tied to a hook.”
Also no surprise, the history of the hobby tracks class oppression and the conquest of nature. Johnson lightly follows the politics. When new railways allowed laborers to hop a train from London to fish in the countryside, lords passed the Enclosure Acts. “Working-class anglers were suddenly barred from rivers they’d spent a lifetime fishing: landowners sitting on a good stretch of salmon water started charging a premium,” he writes.
By the end of the 1800s, all the land was private — and that’s when private clubs and aristocrats got fancy with the flies, using the plumes of exotic birds. Those same plumes filled shipholds in London ports as merchants met the demand for ever-more-elaborate ladies’ hats.
Fly-tying books preached a “pseudoscience” about why the feathers were necessary. The “art form’s apotheosis” came in 1895, in a book by an “aristocratic playboy” that included “detailed recipes from some three hundred flies,” each of which had 19 components. Although dyed feathers of common birds would do the job, the whole point here was to get one’s hands on rare, expensive plumes.
Johnson also tells us about two Victorian naturalists who studied and loved those birds: Alfred Russel Wallace and Walter Rothschild. Wallace dreamed up the main principle of evolution in a fit of malaria alone in a 40-square-foot hut on an island in Indonesia. We read about his painful journeys; after four years collecting specimens in Brazil, he lost them in a shipwreck. It’s a remarkable story Johnson tells with novelistic skill. Walter Rothschild, scion of bankers, never managed to leave his childhood home, the Tring estate a bit over an hour from London, where he opened a “zoological museum” in 1892. The British lovingly dispersed his treasures for safety when Britain was bombed, and then carefully returned them to Tring. The estate is an important repository for bird skins, including Wallace’s collection.
In the 1990s, which now seems the beginning of our own Gilded Age, the hobby reemerged among men who didn’t fish. On eBay, people first sold feathers from 150-year-old hats they found in their attics. And then the market for plumes from endangered birds got tight and lucrative, and feathers, like art, inspired the feather thief, Edwin Rist.
The buyers of Rist’s feathers knew they had stolen goods. Using a “Wayback Machine,” which takes snapshots of websites for posterity, Johnson found Rist’s fence, and complaints from users about the high prices. “It’s not Edwin who’s the crook,” one wrote. “It’s the silly f*ckers with more money than sense who’ll pay that.”
Sales of endangered bird feathers continue, with no policing by eBay, Johnson shows.
You won’t find any rhino horn on the site, but type in the endangered Cotinga maculata or Resplendent Quetzal, the sale of which is prohibited by Appendix I of CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], and you can check out with PayPal and have it rushed to your front door by the U.S. Postal Service with an eBay money-back guarantee.
Cotinga maculata is a blue-and-purple bird from Brazil, of which, according to the American Bird Conservancy a few years ago, only 250 to 999 adults remain. The Mayans forbade killing the green Resplendent Quetzal, native to the disappearing cloud forest. Johnson notes that even after he reported an illegal auction of a pair of Resplendent Quetzal feathers to eBay, they sold a week later for $39.
“I thought of the two currents of humanity running through the story of […] Tring’s birds,” he writes.
In one coursed Alfred Russel Wallace […], the league of curators who had shielded the birds from Zeppelins and the Luftwaffe, and the scientists who probed […] across centuries […] trusting that the march of scientific progress would forever present new ways of looking at the same ancient skins.
In the other current ran Edwin and the feather underground, and the centuries of men and women who looted the skies and forests for wealth and status, driven by greed and the desire to possess what others didn’t.
A few of the men who bought stolen goods chose to return them to Tring. But Johnson ends his tale with a visit to the 26th International Fly Tying Symposium, held in 2016 at the DoubleTree in Somerset, New Jersey. The show’s theme: “Never Enough.” Johnson declares that the Tring Museum birds were openly traded. Online, one collector uploaded photos of mounted birds, including Birds of Paradise, from a Philadelphia museum. “The subject line: ‘Paging: Secret Agent Edwin Rist.’”