ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kirk Wallace Johnson’s book is titled “The Feather Thief.” But if you zero in on the subtitle – “Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century” – it will pull the reader into a thrilling true crime story.
It is about a young American named Edwin Rist who confessed to the theft. He stuffed into a suitcase bird skins whose feathers were scientifically significant, rare, brilliantly feathered. Rist ripped off 299 bird skins from the British Natural History Museum in the town of Tring in 2009.
“The Feather Thief” describes Rist’s obsession leading to the theft and his sale of half of the stolen feathers to an online market of fly-tiers who value them in their pursuit of the Victorian art form of salmon fly-tying, not for use in fly-fishing.
That means colors of recommended feathers Johnson cited in an 1842 volume. Those colors, he writes, are “fiery brown, cinnamon brown, claret, sooty olive, wine purple, stone blue or Prussian blue.” And the recommended feathers are “of 37 different birds – among them the Resplendent Quetzal, the Blue Chatterer, and the Birds of Paradise.” An 1895 publication, “The Salmon Fly,” whose author, Johnson said, was obsessed with hard-to-obtain bird feathers, still inspires modern-day salmon fly-tiers. The teenage Rist was already a respected salmon fly-tier.
Eight months before breaking into the museum, Rist cased the place. Indeed, he was escorted into the bird vault, home to hundreds of thousands of bird skins invaluable for scientific research.
The break-in occurred while he was studying flute at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. Rist took a train to Tring, busted a museum window facing an alley. An alarm went off, but the guard on duty didn’t pay much attention because he was apparently engrossed in a soccer game, Johnson writes.
“Yes, I was frustrated that the museum was so easily robbed. Not once but several times,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “I also tried to keep the blame on the perpetrator, not on the victim.”
He thinks museum officials “were lackadaisical in doing damage control. … They were not exactly burning with a kind of an intense passion to recover these things,” Johnson added.
Johnson does a terrific investigative job in probing the many aspects of the theft, detailed descriptions of the stolen bird skins, Rist’s arrest 15 months after the heist and his trial. Rist never served any prison time, nor did he pay much more than what Johnson termed “a symbolic financial penalty.” The court bought into a doctor’s diagnosis that Rist was suffering from Asperger’s syndrome.
The book also provides a valuable historical context about the search for exotic birds, dating from mid-19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who studied and brought from the Malay Archipelago thousands of bird skins; his work is the basis for the museum’s ornithological collection.
That brings us to the late 19th century-early 20th century obsession with feathered hats in women’s fashion in England and the United States that, Johnson writes, caused the extermination of many exotic bird species.
In the prologue of “The Feather Thief” Johnson explains how his investigation was sparked in – of all places – the Red River, just north of Taos. The author was fly-fishing with the guide Spencer Seim, who told him about Rist’s theft.
And there’s an Albuquerque link Johnson revealed in the phone interview: “It was in Albuquerque that Spencer took his first salmon fly-tying class. If Spencer hadn’t started tying those, he would have never heard of this story, and I wouldn’t have heard it from him.”