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The Peter Zodac Collection

(This article originally appeared in The Mineralogical Record, Volume 19, March-April, 1988)

This is a story that I must tell now, or at least write down someplace, because it was over twenty years ago that I first saw Peter Zodac's collection, and even my memory fades now and again.

zodac1.jpg (34299 bytes)It was in May of 1967 that I was asked by James and Winifred Bourne to appraise the collection that had been the life-long accumulation of their recently deceased relative, Peter Zodac. Zodac had been a mining engineer early in his life, and had founded the magazine Rocks and Minerals in 1926. (See his biography in the January February 1987 issue of Rocks and Minerals.) According to my appraisal notes I spent five days doing the examination but, according to my memory, the appraised value was still just an educated guess. The two-story house including basement and attic at 157 Wells Street, Peekskill, New York, was literally filled, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with small to large cardboard boxes, presumed by me at the time to be filled with minerals. In the course of my appraisal I opened many of these boxes and found everything from sand specimens in old Mason jars (the jars far more valuable than their contents), old slate roof shingles, and in one box a lovely half-inch green anglesite crystal on matrix from Sardinia. Incidentally, that was the first and last time I ever saw that anglesite.

Part of my help to the Bournes was to try to find someone interested in buying this vast assemblage of varied earth materials, collectibles and who-knows-what-else. After being pressed by Jim and Winnie for help in this matter, and not having too much encouragement to offer them, I wasn't too surprised when they said "Why don't you buy it, Larry?" Well, here was the chance or perhaps the curse of a lifetime.  How would I handle it, where would I put it? I had long been told by my uncle, the late Anthony Schumacher, of the countless gifts of mineral specimens (Zodac called them donations) sent to Peter Zodac, many of them by dealers and collectors who enjoyed getting a compensatory mention in Rocks and Minerals magazine. My uncle had been totaling all these up in his mind for more than 30 years and often told me how impressed and, I guess, how envious he was. Well, here it all was; what would my uncle have said? Buy it, I'm sure. My answer to the Bournes was a softly murmured, "Okay, I will." And I did.

zodac2.jpg (72947 bytes)I could not start immediately on the removal, and in any case the matters of the estate had yet to be settled. I would have three months in which to find a place to store my purchase. The three months came and went, and then another three, and still I had found no place for the collection. Now the Bournes were pressing me. After much local advertising I got a call from the owner of an old dairy-farm that had just shut down after 70 years in operation. I quickly made a deal to rent his largest barn at an affordable monthly rate. (It was amazing that an operation such as a dairy could have survived in suburban New Canaan until 1967!)

There was one note of emergency in the mineral removal. The weight of all the boxes had, over the years, caused a serious failure in the house structure, and the house was listing 10 degrees as a result!  Obviously the building would have to be condemned.

A moving company was engaged, and early one morning a 16 wheel, long-distance van arrived to begin the move. The minerals in the attic were easily slid down conveyors to the truck. Those on the second and first floors went easily too. But, when it came time for the, by then, tired moving-men to lift boxes from the basement floor up to windows on grade level, it was too much for them, I guess.   Probably the first box burst by accident as it was lifted, but once they got the hang of it and banged most of the boxes against the wall, virtually all wound up broken and scattered on the basement floor.When the truck was finally filled, there remained on the 20 x 20-foot basement floor a layer at least 3 feet deep of minerals, rocks, letters and crushed cartons!

I was told that 157 Wells Street was bulldozed shortly thereafter,and the mineral-filled basement remains as part of the foundation for the building that replaced it, a lovely geological puzzle for archaeologists of future centuries.

zodac3.jpg (35979 bytes)When the Zodac material was finally moved to the concrete-floored barn, it filled a space 20 by 60 feet to a height of 10 feet! My job then was to fill my station wagon with boxes, take them to my garage, examine them and hope for the best. I had at that time the very expert and professional help of Terrence Szenics of New Jersey, who probably remembers better than I the details of the collection. What was uncovered was more interesting than valuable. The single best specimen that I can recall is a superb chalcostibite. This fine specimen had been given, excuse me, "donated" by Arthur Montgomery.

Rocks and Minerals magazine had always reported to its readers on sand deposits, and even conducted a column on sand. Readers sent in sand samples from all over the world. Well, here were the sands.  I got them all together, many, many hundreds of samples, and actually found a buyer for them!

I remember many large, heavy wooden crates filled with lower quality minerals brought back by Ed Over and Arthur Montgomery from their 1938 expedition to Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, and all with their original seaweed packing. I sold most of these crates without ever seeing their contents. This happened because I had to make a quick deal to dispose of about 25% of the Zodac material that I had not processed. After 3 or 4 years I lost my lease on the barn and had to clean it out. Perhaps that was where the green anglesite went.

Another thing I recall was a box of about 150 pounds of massive hancockite from Franklin, New Jersey, that (at least in my time) had not been checked for vugs having microscopic crystals.

One of Zodac's collecting specialties was a sub-collection centering on molybdenite. The specimens were scattered throughout the ocean of boxes, but when I finally got them all together they made an impressive display indeed. I later donated this group of about 200 specimens to the American Museum of Natural History. There are probably greater molybdenite collections in other museums, perhaps in Australia, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Zodac material represents the largest number of different molybdenite localities of any such assemblage. It even boasts a molybdenite crystal on smoky quartz from Manhattan Island!

Unquestionably the best part of Peter Zodac's collection was his books. I did not even realize that they went with the minerals until I was reminded by Jim Bourne that the room containing all the books had to be emptied by me! Zodac had the finest single copy of the first edition of Dana's System of Mineralogy (1837) that I have ever seen.  It was in an old sheep binding that looked like it had just come from the binder, and the pages looked like a superb facsimile reprint. He also had a complete and pristine set of The Mineral Collector, a great rarity even in poor condition. There were countless copies of newer books that had been sent to him for review in Rocks and Minerals, some of them from the 1930's and 1940's, several of which are part of my reference library today.

Since I have touched on a discussion of rare books, I'll digress in that direction for the remainder of this column, even though it has little to do with Zodac.

Zodac's library provoked my 1980 essay "Reflections upon perusing a 1942 bookseller's catalog" (Mineralogical Record, vol. 11, p. 127), and here is an addendum to that article which I wrote the following year but did not submit for publication:

It was most exciting for me to meet, at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show last February, the person who actually purchased most of the books I discussed from Mr. Fiedler's book list. He wishes to remain anonymous, and has resold them all by now anyway, but he did tell me that all of the important books were from a single source, the private library of a professor in New England. That information makes them seem all the more rare.

Since my last writing I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to purchase part of a fine old library. I shared it with Richard Hauck and Joseph Gill. Gill has a great library of gem books in English,and many mineralogies too. Hauck was the purchaser of the Neal Yedlin library and has been adding to it very seriously. One of the books I obtained is called Speculum Lapidum by Camillus Leonardus, the second edition of 1516. The title means "Mirror of Stones," and the first edition was published in 1502. Frank Dawson Adams (1938) related a delightful anecdote about the rarity of this work. He quotes from the preface to the 1750 English edition, which speaks of the editions of 1502 and 1516:


A certain nobleman who is pleased to honor me with his friendship sought for it [a copy of Speculum Lapidum] in vain in the most noted libraries in England; but being determined to have it if there was one in Europe, sent a gentleman to France, where he was to make the best enquiry he was able among the book sellers, and to search every library where there was any probability of its being lodged; and if his enquiries should prove unsuccessful there, he was to proceed to Italy, and so on to other countries till he should find it. After a long and expensive search he at last was so happy to light upon two of them, which he purchased tho' at an exorbitant price, and brought them to his noble master, who was so pleased with the purchase that he not only paid him generously for his time and expenses, but over and above as a gratuity and reward for his dilligence presented him with a bank note for 30.

So, the way of the collector was not easy, even back in 1750! The sum of 30 was much more than the annual wages of a working man.

As far as Speculum Lapidum is concerned, it is an early Middle Ages lapidary written in Latin and dedicated to Cesare Borgia by the author, who was also Borgia's physician. Virtually every mineral and gem known to that date is mentioned in this very interesting compilation.

zodac4.jpg (63168 bytes)My copy of Speculum Lapidum is bound in full nineteenth-century morocco leather, and I'm sometimes asked what the difference in value would be between this copy and one in an original or contemporary binding. The answer is complex. Certainly it is more desirable to have any early book in its original binding, but what if it were in ragged condition? Would rebinding be preferable? Yes, for most collectors, and no for the few who would prefer to order from a binder, a beautiful full-leather book-form case in which to store the old binding. With condition being equal, and fine, there can be a factor often or more in the difference of the price of the two books. In the early days of book collecting many book enthusiasts would admit no book to their shelves that did not have the exterior coeval with the published date of the book. We could do likewise today, but we would have skimpy libraries indeed!

All of the important books in my library are long gone. I sold them to a collector in Evanston, Illinois, and, after suffering fire, smoke and water damage, many are now safely ensconced in the Hauck library. Richard Hauck has accomplished miracles of acquisition, and his library is surely one of the finest in the world, with the depth of his ephemera collection being truly amazing! The wheel certainly is capable of a full turn! Gill, on the other hand, has decided to market his book collection through the auction house Christie's in New York, and has had one very impressive sale of part of his library; others will follow. Last October a copy of Mirror of Stones, the English translation of Speculum Lapidum (1750) brought Joe Gill a very hefty $1870!

One lovely book that I am sorry I sold was Zodac's copy of John Sinkankas's Mineralogy for Amateurs (1964). Sinkankas had dedicated this book to Zodac "for a lifetime devoted to the encouragement of amateur interests in earth sciences," and had added a very nice personal "holograph" (handwritten) inscription: "I have dedicated this book to you because I can think of no one who has done more for the amateur mineralogist in one lifetime." Such volumes (and of course, there can only be one for each book) are known as "dedication copies," and are extremely desirable collector's items.

NOTE: There are several good books on the history of mineralogy.  Here are a few of my favorites:

ADAMS, F. D. (1938) Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences. Reprinted in 1954 by Dover Books, New York.

BURKE, J. G. (1966) Origins of the Science of Crystals.

HA ZEN, R. M., and HAZEN, M. H. (1980) American Geological Literature, 1669-1850. Dowden, New York, 431 p.

MATHER, K. F., and MASON, S. L. (1970) A Source Book in Geology. Cambridge.

MERRILL, G. P. (1906) Contributions to the history of American geology. Report of the U.S. National Museum for the Year Ending June 30, 1904. Washington.

MITCHELL, R. S. (1979) Mineral Names-What do They Mean?  Van Nostrand, New York.


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Lawrence H. Conklin
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