Cabinet of curiosities

Six hundred dollars was more money twenty years ago, but it was still pretty cheap for a beautiful rosewood specimen cabinet, I’d have thought. It was full of somebody’s nineteenth-century insect collection. Wait a minute – how many nineteenth-century insect collections with 1700 specimens were there, anyway? That’s a lot of work collecting. Maybe this belonged to somebody notable?

What happened with the cabinet after it left [Alfred Russel] Wallaces possession is mostly a mystery. Before turning up in Virginia, the cabinet was bought in 1964 by an antiques dealer from an unclaimed baggage sale in Philadelphia. He suspected that the cabinet belonged to Wallace, but never took the pains to prove it. Mr. Heggestad made some inquiries after he bought the cabinet and then let the matter drop. He kept the cabinet in his dining room until a friend advised him in 2007 that it should be in a museum. That inspired him to a flurry of research in which he compared the handwriting on the specimen labels with those in the British museum and studied the source of the specimens, putting beyond doubt that the collection was Wallaces.

And now it’s on display at the American Museum of Natural History.