It’s fun to pull for the bad guys in a summer flick, especially when they’re not Too bad. I just rewatched Ocean’s Eleven – George Clooney! Matt Damon! Brad Pitt! Even without popcorn and a coke, this was a good way to spend a few hours getting in the mood for Ocean’s Eight. Nothing lately has made me happier than pulling for the young vagabond Han Solo and the anti-heroine Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
If true crime is more your style, you’ll want to know about an intriguing new book by Kirk Wallace Johnson, The Feather Thief. Sara Bhatia returns to Bacon today for an in-depth, spirited review.
I love stories about museum heists. They are sentimental crimes, with burglars risking all in the hope of acquiring an item of exquisite beauty or inestimable worth. Of course, that assumes that the loot is an item of great value – like a precious gemstone or Munch’s “The Scream” (which has been stolen twice!). But feathers?
Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief is a fascinating true crime story about a brazen theft of exquisite tropical bird feathers from a natural history museum on the outskirts of London. The narrative reads like a thriller, but the book’s most impressive contribution is Johnson’s ability to place the crime within its historical context. Other reviewers have drawn comparisons to Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, with its similar unmasking of a subculture of collectors teetering on the edge of the law, and the author’s brooding on the nature of obsession.
The facts: in June 2009, Edwin Rist, a 20-year old American flautist studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music, boarded a commuter train to a London suburb. He walked to a satellite location of the British Museum of Natural History, which housed a world class ornithology collection filled with rare birds of incalculable historic and scientific importance. Under shadow of night, Rist broke a window on the second floor of the museum, and entered. Eluding security guards, Rist spent hours in the ornithology collection and stuffed 299 tropical bird skins valued at $1 million into a large suitcase. He made his escape, and took the pre-dawn commuter train back to his London flat.
During the 18 months between the execution of the crime and Rist’s apprehension, he made tens of thousands of dollars selling complete bird skins and packets of plucked feathers. But while Rist certainly profited financially, his motivation for the crime was more intriguing – he desperately wanted the feathers for his own collection. Rist burgled the museum in pursuit of his art.
In addition to being a musical prodigy, Edwin Rist was a world-class tier of decorative fishing flies. In past centuries, fishermen constructed brightly colored ties as baits for fly fishing; today fly-tying is a highly stylized art form with virtually no relation to function. An elaborate salmon fly can take 10 hours to create and may feature dozens of different materials, such as polar bear fur, and most importantly, exotic feathers. A specimen crafted by a master tier can sell for $2,000. They are genuinely works of art. As a teenager, Edwin Rist was among the most accomplished fly-tiers in the world. In the small, tightly knit international community of fly-tiers, Edwin Rist was a rock star.
More specifically, Rist was a member of an elite group of fly-tiers inspired by the Victorian practitioners who perfected the craft.
The first elaborate fly Rist learned to tie, at 14, was “the Durham Ranger,” a tie invented in the 1840s (the instructions for tying a fly are charmingly referred to as “recipes”). While the feathers Rist first used were mundane and from easily accessible domestic species, Victorian recipes called for more exotic combinations. Johnson writes, “The fly was like a snapshot of the British Empire at midcentury – employing plumes shipped up by Ostrich farmers in the Cape Colony, Blue Chatterer and Indian Crow extracted from British Guiana, and Golden Pheasant crated in the port of Hong Kong.”
Alas the materials available to 19th century fly-tiers are no longer readily nor legally available. Twenty-first century tiers may crave rare feathers from Resplendent Quetzals and Birds of Paradise, but those feathers derive from endangered and protected species. Johnson describes Rist and his peers in the world of fly-tying as “marooned in the wrong century… The new tiers were dedicated to an art form that could no longer be practiced without great difficulty.”
So today elite fly-tiers seek alternative sources for rare (and often illegal) feathers. They haunt estate sales and antique stores looking for old stuffed birds and decorative plumes from ladies’ hats. Rist once persuaded the Bronx Zoo to send him feathers from the annual molt of its tropical birds. While these novel approaches occasionally succeeded, they are unreliable sources of material. So most elite fly-tiers use easily available substitute feathers from game and breeder birds, even while coveting rare and pricey authentic feathers.
But for the truly passionate, there’s also a lively – and largely unregulated – trade in illegal feathers. The CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), with 181 signatories, has sought to protect 33,000 species of plants and animals, including 1,500 bird species. Yet CITES has focused on larger, more lucrative targets, like rhino horns and elephant tusks, while doing little to regulate the trade in bird skins and feathers. At trade shows and on eBay, tiers can purchase exquisitely colored rare feathers from illegal sources. A set of six tiny Indian Crow feathers no bigger than a fingernail could cost $100. Johnson does a fine job exploring the ways in which the Internet – for better or worse – has created a subculture of fly-tiers and provided a platform for only loosely regulated sales of feathers and bird skins. They even have a term for this passion: feather porn.
Edwin Rist was both a contributor to and a beneficiary of this subterranean culture of fly-tiers obsessed with rare feathers. In online forums for fly tiers, he learned techniques and developed his own distinctive ties, and found sources for rare feathers. At trade shows, he connected with peers fueled his passion to acquire vast quantities of gorgeous and exotic feathers to practice his art. A chance conversation alerted Rist – an American – to the British Museum of Natural History’s world-class ornithography collection in the London suburbs. Within his first semester at the Royal Academy of Music, Rist had forged academic credentials for himself in order to gain entry to the collection and plot his burglary. Through the online world, he found a market to sell stolen product.
While many readers will no doubt be riveted by Johnson’s recounting of the actual heist, my favorite chapters were essentially sidebars to the main plot. After laying out the essential details of the crime, Johnson spends the first third of the book down various rabbit holes, with chapters creating the context for the “feather frenzy” of the 19th century, which gave birth to the art of salmon fly-tying.
For instance, the Victorian passion for fly-tying converged with the 19th century mania for collecting and interest in the natural world. This era saw the development of natural history museums, and dozens of scientific societies dedicated to exploration and discovery. Sparked by Charles Darwin, naturalists circled the globe collecting specimens; royal societies named hundreds of new species each year. Johnson devotes the opening chapter of The Feather Thief to Alfred Russel Wallace, who created the field of biogeography, through his meticulous recording of the geographic distribution of species. Dozens of his bird skins – painstakingly tagged with scientific and geographical data still useful to scientists today to study the impact of pesticides and global warming, for example – were among those looted by Rist from the Tring collection.
And there’s a terrific chapter on the rage for feathers in fashion, sparked by Marie Antoinette, whom Johnson terms “patient zero for the feather fever.” Johnson charts the fashion fad, but more importantly, describes the devastating impact on tropical bird species. It’s hard to fully comprehend the impact of this feather craze – Johnson notes “by 1900 eighty-three thousand New Yorkers were employed in the millinery trade, for which some two hundred million North American birds were killed each year.” With the diminishing populations of birds – and particular, exotic birds of the tropical islands – the value of the feathers soared. In 1900, an ounce of Snowy Egret’s feathers cost $32, compared with $20 for an ounce of gold. On the commodities market, feathers were second only to diamonds in value. Remarkably, when the Titanic sunk in 1912, the most valuable and highly insured merchandise on board was forty crates of feathers.
I found all the chapters on the historical context for the feather craze fascinating – who knew feathers could be such fun? Like a great documentary film, a great non-fiction book can immerse you in a subject you never thought you cared about. Passion is contagious.
And yet, The Feather Thief is not quite a great book. The retelling of the facts of the actual crime doesn’t demand book-length treatment, in part because, once arrested, Rist readily confessed. This is not a whodunnit. Without the many side-bars of discussion on historical context and the fly fishing community, the story of the heist itself could easily have been an article in the New Yorker, rather than a full-length book. That’s okay with me, though, because I loved all the historic filler. What I liked less, though, was the back end of the book.
The final third of The Feather Thief shifts to first person voice, as the the author, Kirk Wallace Johnson, inserts himself into the story. Johnson stumbled upon Rist’s strange tale while fly-fishing in New Mexico and became fascinated by Rist’s strange crime and the dark underworld of illegal trade in endangered species and feathers. For three years following Edwin Rist’s lenient sentencing – a stiff fine with no jail time – Johnson took up the mantle of an investigative journalist, and he documents his research in great detail.
I frankly found this final section the least satisfying part of The Feather Thief. Johnson is unable to transcend his own biases – he evinces a clear sympathy for the pilfered museum and the case for scientific inquiry (me too!) – to allow the reader to empathize with Rist’s failed quest. Rist’s lenient sentence is based on a diagnosis of Asperger’s, which Johnson deems spurious. Instead, he brands Edwin Rist as an unscrupulous thief with little interest in the consequence of his actions. This may be an apt characterization, but is less compelling to a reader.
Part of the thrill of a good heist story is rooting for the bad guys. In The Feather Thief, we never really get to know Edwin Rist, despite his tepid cooperation with the book (Johnson scored a single marathon interview which revealed surprisingly little). There’s not much attention paid to character development. Johnson holds Rist and the fly-tying community at arm’s length – the best books about obsession work because the reader grows to identify with the obsessed, or to at least empathize with their obsession.
But ultimately the back third of the book is unsatisfying because Johnson’s detective work failed to bear much fruit. Without notable investigatory triumphs, these chapters fall a little flat – it’s like reading a detailed description of a researcher’s dead ends.
Nevertheless, The Feather Thief was a fine read – a thoroughly engrossing look at a quirky crime and a fascinating subculture. Johnson’s forays down historical tangents – the development of Victorian museums, the impact of the railway and the democratization of fly fishing, the scientific uses for 200-year old bird carcasses, and the feather frenzy of 19th century fashion, to name a few – were fabulous. Johnson successfully illustrates the strange subculture of fly-tying enthusiasts, and is particularly compelling in his portrayal of Rist’s crime and as the inevitable outcome of passionate hobbyists gone amok. His explorations of the nature of obsession and his finger pointing at the fly tying community for its complicity in Rist’s crime were equally intriguing. Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating book.
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Bonus from Sara! “Art heists are hot at the movies this summer. I’m gathering my girlfriends to see Ocean’s 8 (with a fabulous all-female cast), which centers on a plot to steal a $150 million diamond necklace from the Met Gala. And my husband and I loved American Animals, a dramatized true story about a group of bored college students in Kentucky who plot to steal James Audubon’s Birds of America, the most expensive book in the world, from the rare books section of the university library. Campy, fun, and audacious.”
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Bacon contributor Sara Bhatia lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two nearly grown sons. She volunteers as a docent and community educator at the Newseum (DC’s museum dedicated to the First Amendment). This fall, she will return to school to earn a master’s degree in Museum Studies at George Washington University. In preparation, she’s been staking out the DC museum scene, visiting a museum a week, looking for ideas for a master’s thesis, and maybe planning a heist or two.