THE WORLD’S FINEST MINERAL SPECIMEN
Lawrence H. Conklin
2 West 46th Street, 303
New York, NY 10036
DEDICATED IN MEMORY OF JAY LININGER (1939-2004), DEVOTED COLLECTOR OF THE MINERAL SPECIMENS OF PENNSYLVANIA.
This essay was prepared by me for publication in his beloved MATRIX.
What is the finest mineral specimen in the world? In my mind there is no question that it is the “Newmont azurite” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Judgments like this are, of course, subjective but there is no question that in my 65 years of examining fine minerals and 50 years of buying and selling them that this is the best.
This great piece was found at Tsumeb, South West Africa (now Tsumeb, Namibia) in 1952. It is said that the worker who recovered it, used the piece to pay an overdue bar bill and that it sat in the barroom, properly appreciated for the treasure it was, until the mine boss at that time, Charlie Stott, reclaimed it for the Newmont Mining Company.
My personal connection to this specimen goes back to the Winter of 1976-77 when Paul E. Desautels (1920-1991), who was the curator of minerals at the Smithsonian Institution at that time, came to New York for the specific purpose of garnering that great trophy for the collection in Washington, and I was called upon to appraise it. I already had a pleasant and longtime relationship with the Newmont people and other members of the Copper Council.
Upon hearing the shocking news that this great piece might escape, I panicked. “This azurite,” I pleaded to the company’s board, “should never leave New York.” I pointed out to them that they had such a fine, long-term relationship with the “American Museum,” and that now was surely not the time to break it. They reminded me that, after all, Desautels would be adding the azurite to “the nation’s collection” and they liked that concept. I am sure that Paul had done his usual great job of public relations.
I then told them my tentative evaluation of the specimen, they approved of it, and even approved of my fee which was quite high. I got nowhere, however, in my further attempts to change the ultimate fate of that azurite.
I had made my best shot at getting them to send the piece to Central Park West, and, it fell, apparently, on deaf ears. Then I did it. I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. (I love to quote from the “Godfather”) I actually found myself saying that I would forego my substantial appraisal fee if the azurite journeyed westward across town instead of down south and, to my happy surprise, they promptly agreed.
Then I made another pitch for them to “throw in” to the deal the magnificent “Newmont gold” an old-timer from Grass Valley, California and they said yes to that suggestion, too. I do not know of a California gold specimen that I like more than this one.
On January 13, 1977 I typed and delivered my appraisal of that azurite and described it, simply, as follows: “Azurite, Tsumeb, Southwest Africa. A group of huge magnificent crystals on matrix. 12x12x5 inches. $250,000.00.” At the same time I appraised the Newmont gold, an amazing mass of superb flattened, octahedral crystals with no matrix, of 7x4-1/2x2 inches, for the same price. I heard nothing more of the matter until I was made aware of a negatively-oriented article that appeared in the May, 1980 issue of Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone.
I wondered why a jewelry magazine became interested in the story of an appraisal and donation of a mineral specimen, or even how they became aware of it.
Nonetheless they published a full-page article about it, with a good color photograph of the specimen, entitled: “The Newmont azurite: As priceless as Mona Lisa?”
Of course the article was, in my opinion, nothing more than a “hatchet-job.” To begin, how could any reasonably knowledgeable staff of reporters and editors think that the Mona Lisa was worth only $250,000 in 1980? My sources tell me that $5,000,000 would have been a better guess; and they got many of the facts in the story completely wrong, too.
The article quoted my dear, longtime friends, Dave Wilber and Charlie Key as saying my appraised value was too high. Dave got bogged down, as usual, in an invidious comparison with a specimen that he had recently sold and stated that it was finer than the azurite. I did not agree at that time with Dave’s estimation and I still do not agree. The superb phosphophyllite that he sold is surely a wonderful specimen but the main crystal, it must be remembered, needed to be reglued to its rock matrix. Charlie was a little more generous when he explained: “To some extent you’re appraising in a vacuum on a piece like this.” Indeed, appraising the “unique object,” mineral specimen or whatever is, to say the least, quite challenging.
That the museum staff loves the azurite is shown by the fact that it is the only mineral specimen discussed and illustrated on their web site. A rather poor picture and a simple description can be seen at—
Happily, the Newmont azurite is on everyday display at the museum but in my opinion the lighting of it could be greatly improved. The specimen appears almost black in color and it is not; it is a fine, deep blue.
If you agree with my choice for the world’s finest mineral specimen or perhaps, more importantly, if you disagree, I should certainly welcome your comments.
Newmont Mining Company deserves much thanks for their generous gifts to the museum. I thank Jamie Newman of the Earth & Planetary Sciences Department at the museum for all her help and encouragement and special thanks to Dr. George E. Harlow.
Photographs courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.
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