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Natural History Museum Collectors Cabinets for Sale at Bonhams

Historic cabinets from the Natural History Museum and, until very recently, home to some of the world’s greatest butterfly collections, are to be sold at Bonhams Gentleman’s Library Sale in London on 19 January 2011.

For 80 years the cabinets, mainly of Honduras mahogany, housed the collections of three extraordinary figures whose rivalry and pioneering spirit provided the Natural History Museum with the largest and finest collection of butterflies ever assembled. The collection has now been moved to state-of-the-art, pest proof, climate controlled metal cabinets in the Museum’s new Darwin Centre which will protect and preserve it for future generations.

The three men – Birmingham industrialist John Levick, Surrey businessman James Joicey, and Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild – were all born in the Victorian era.

They were fanatical natural history collectors, with a particular fascination for butterflies and competed, in a largely good natured way, to acquire the biggest and best collections. Immensely wealthy and immensely passionate, they sent adventurers out on their behalf to scour the world for new and even more exotic specimens for their private museums. They even involved the famous American explorer, Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr Livingstone, I presume,” fame) and the German born naturalist and physician Emin Pasha.

James Joicey was a wealthy man of leisure who was originally obsessed with orchids, a pursuit which eventually bankrupted him. At the bankruptcy hearing the judge made him promise to give up orchid collection. He complied but promptly switched to butterflies instead amassing a huge collection though acquisition and by commissioning explorers to collect on his behalf. These he housed at a specially constructed private museum, the Hill Museum, at his home in Whitley in Surrey.

Lord Rothschild built a private museum at Tring to house his collection of over two and half million butterflies. On his death he not only left his collection to the Natural History Museum he also left Tring to the nation and it is now an important outstation of the Museum in South Kensington.

John Levick created his museum in a Regency House in Handsworth, Birmingham, where he kept his acquisitions and specimens sent to him from all over the world.

The collections of Lord Rothschild and John Levick were left to the nation on their deaths and James Joicey’s collection was acquired by the Museum after he went bankrupt for a second time in the 1930s. The three men had commissioned cabinet makers, such as the renowned Hill and Howard, to make fine mahogany cabinets to house their treasures and it is these which will be sold at Bonhams in January.

There are 46 cabinets in all. Estimates start at between £300 and 500 for the smaller cabinets with the most expensive being estimated at between £2,000 and 3,000.

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