CHARLES W. A. HERRMANN
(1801 - 1898)
Mineralogist and Mineral Dealer
(This article originally appeared in The Mineralogical Record, Volume 25, May - June, 1994)
The history of early commerce in mineral specimens on a professional level in the United States has barely been touched upon. Most people, this writer included, long thought that it began, essentially, with Albert E. Foote, M.D., who was born in 1846, and did not become active until about 1870. Now we know there were professional dealers as far back as the 1820's and there may well have been earlier ones. The main difference between the business then and now is that now things have expanded enough to allow some dealers to specialize and to sell mineral specimens only; whereas then they probably were forced to offer fossils, shells and other natural history objects, in order to survive, in much the same way that some mineral dealers of today offer gemstones, beads and jewelry.
One mineral specimen dealer who was active in the 1850's was Charles Wilhelm August Herrmann of New York City. He was born in 1801 in Altwasser, Silesia, Germany, on the estate of Baron Richthofen, where his father was the supervisor of the Baron's 26 farms; he died in New York City in 1898. Herrmann studied mineralogy at the University of Breslau and then became Professor of Mineralogy there. He gave up this position after some years and undertook studies at Mecklenberg University for a time. When he left Mecklenberg, he returned to Breslau and opened a shop for the sale of minerals and shells.
It was a time of great political and economic upheaval in Europe, and Herrmann emigrated to America in 1853. Herrmann stated, in a letter to Clarence S. Bement, that it was his intention to return to Germany, "but my wife was sick for seven years so I had to stay."
Herrmann brought with him a large collection of minerals which, he believed, was the very first imported into this country, but he was mistaken. It is recorded that Archibald Bruce (1777-1818), David Hosack (1769-1835), Col. George Gibbs (1776 1835) and possibly others, preceded him by many years. The mineral shop which he established at the corner of Broadway and Houston Street in NewYork City became his sole occupation until he could no longer run it in old age.
In 1857 Herrmann displayed mineral specimens at the Crystal Palace in New York City, and won the award for the best (and only?) display. The Crystal Palace, completed in 1853, was an elaborate, greenhouse like exposition building made mostly of glass in an iron framework,with wood utilized only for floors, doors and sash. It was considered completely fireproof but it nevertheless caught fire in 1858 and was reduced to an incandescent pile of rubble in a period of twenty minutes! It was constructed for the first World's Fair held in the United States and was modeled after the original Crystal Palace in London. It stood on land now occupied by Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library, whose site, at that time, was occupied by the Croton Reservoir. This is the block bounded by 42nd and 40th Streets, 5th and 6th Avenues.
Herrmann made several buying trips to Germany, returning each time with new specimens for his clients, one of whom was "the millionaire Robert L. Stuart," (1806-1882), important philanthropist in New York City and president of the American Museum of Natural History from 1872 to 1881. Stuart was a serious mineral collector, and Herrmann sold him some of the choicest specimens in his collection. This collection went, upon Stuart's death, not to the A.M.N.H., as one might assume, but to the Lenox Library, becauseStuart, who was a devout Presbyterian, vigorously opposed museums being open to the public on Sundays, and withheld donations from institutions with such a policy. Indeed, his widow revoked large bequests already made to the American Museum in her will. Stuart did give (during the time of his presidency) to the museum a collection of 140 mineral specimens, that illustrated the geology of Mont Blanc, Switzerland, on October 25, 1877. According to the Dictionary ofAmerican Biography:
She [Mrs. Stuart] had no children, and after her death more than $4,000,000 [!] was distributed to various societies and institutions. The Stuart pictures [a significant collection] and books went [also] to the Lenox Library, later incorporated with the New York Public Library. By perpetual inhibition the room containing those collections is closed to the public on Sundays.
A few inquiries at the N.Y.P.L. turned up no one who ever heard of this "perpetual inhibition?" but the question is moot because the library is not open on Sundays.
In 1883 Mrs. Stuart gave the American Museum a mesosiderite meteorite from Vaca Muerta, Chile, which fell before 1861; a Brazilian chalcedony enhydro in 1884; and in 1886 she gave a Japanese stibnite that she had purchased from Charles Herrmann and a specimen of gold crystals on quartz from Eldorado County, California.
On one of Herrmann's journeys he purchased, in Bavaria, a very important fossil icthyosaur which he sold to the City College of NewYork. I recall having seen it during my undergraduate days there in the 1950's and remember it as being about 12 feet long. Referring to that fossil, Herrmann said "I had great pain to get the fossil bones free of duty, [and] only because they went all to [the] college." Today there is no duty whatsoever on fossils or even the most valuable of mineral or rough gem specimens for that matter. Some things are better today than they were in the "good old days."
Most of the information in this article was gleaned from Herrmann's obituary and from a small group of his holograph letters sent toClarence S. Bement and George F. Kunz between the years 1890 and1892. This material is now in my own library, but it was once part of the very large file of letters to Kunz that is now at the American Museum of Natural History Library in New York. Herrmann's letters,which are in a scrawling hand, and now and then lapse into virtually indecipherable German words and phrases, are very difficult to follow, and remind one of the old expression "sie mussen never zwei languages zusammen speak," but one interesting statement sent by Herrmann to Bement on 8-20-1891 is as follows, edited where necessary:
On the 5th of March 1875 Mr. Vaux wrote [me that] your [Herrmann's] experience with collectors is similar to my own and it does seem that in minerals, people will be dishonest when they will not be in other things.
So wrote lawyer Vaux.
N. cheated me [Herrmann] of $200.
E. cheated me of $200.
M. cheated me of $100. Mostly teachers.
In a later missive Herrmann told Bement that the people who cheated him were all professors.
I have heard complaints similar to Mr. Vaux's expressed by people in other collecting fields too, especially books. Perhaps Bement questioned Herrmann's quotation from the Vaux missive, because, in a letter dated a month later, 9-24-1891, Herrmann wrote: "Herewith I send the hand writing of the late Mr. Vaux, that you may see, I wrote the truth."
In 1891 Herrmann sent to Clarence S. Bement a copy of a bookwritten by Lewis Feuchtwanger (1807-1876) which the author had presented to him. Since he mentions in the accompanying letter that "many minerals are painted [colored]" the book in question must have been A Popular Treatise On Gems, of the third or fourth edition. He told Bement that "Dr. Feuchtwanger came every Sunday afternoon to me even when ice was on the street, talking minerals."2
Herrmann further informed Bement that after Feuchtwanger died, when both of his daughters were in Paris, his mineral collection was stolen. It would seem that Feuchtwanger had a lot of bad luck with his collection. Canfield, in his Final Disposition (see vol. 21, no. 1,p. 41-46, 39) states that Feuchtwanger's . . .
. . . daughters presented his collection to the Society of Ethical Culture of New York City, about 1900. It was a general collection. Many years ago, while this collection was exhibited in the Old Arsenal in Central Park, some of the specimens were stolen.
Perhaps they were both referring to the same event. The Arsenal was the first (and temporary) home of the American Museum of Natural History and was occupied by the museum from 1870 to 1879 while the great complex of buildings on Central Park West was under construction. It is still standing today.
If, indeed, Clarence Bement was one of Herrmann's clients, there is no evidence surviving with his collection at the American Museum to verify it. Bement was very careful in noting whom he bought his specimens from, but he did this on the reverse side of his specimen labels, and since all of these labels were glued to large cards in curator Louis Gratacap's time, and since these cards do no always record all of the information from the backs of the labels, such evidence may exist, but is, for now at least, unavailable.
We do know that in 1891 Bement got one specimen from Herrmann, but it came in the form of a gift. It was described by Herrmann as follows "A singular [sic.] Garnet Crystal, which came long ago to my hand, but was forgotten among my closets . . . I never saw such before, [italics added] and nobody has seen it."3 This specimen was, presumably, sent to Bement as a thank-you gift for Bement's present to Herrmann of $50 cash "to help me along. This money will help me to move to better quarters." Fifty dollars was a very significant sum for the time. I currently have on hand Clarence Bement's Russian emerald specimen that today is worth several thousand dollars, and the price Bement paid for it in this same time period was $50!
Thank you to Charles Pearson and Joseph Peters for help in researching one-time president of the American Museum of Natural Historv Robert L. Stuart.
1. Herrmann followed, by five years, a fellow mineralogist/countryman, Fredrick A. Genth (1820 - 1893), who came to this country in 1848. Genth was twice honored with the naming of the mineral species genthite and genthelvite, but of course he chose to become an academic and not a mineral dealer.
2. Today virtually nothing is known of Clarence Bement's mineral-book library (unlike his general library of which much has been recorded), but the above information places one more gem or mineral title in bibliophile Bement's hands. We know of a total of only four! Unfortunately, as with the other three books, this copy can not be located today.
3. Was this an early version of the mineral dealers' joke used in describing a fine specimen? - "I never saw a better one," says the dealer, to which the cynics reply - "Yes, every time a better one was around you covered your eyes."
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