This story first came to my attention early last year, while attending a meeting of the Entomological Society of Washington.

In 1979 a lawyer, Robert Heggestad, purchased a rosewood cabinet at an antiques shop in Arlington, Virginia. The cabinet contained 26 glass-topped drawers, labeled A to Z which, in turn, held a wide array of preserved flora and fauna, principally 1,500 plus insects and, in addition, botanical specimens, shells and, if memory serves, a hummingbird (Some images here).

After a brief attempt at tracing the origins of this collection, Heggestad’s interest dwindled and the cabinet and its contents became a mere curiosity. Only in 2007, while looking to sell the collection, did Heggestad begin to investigate its history.

The antiques dealer who sold him the cabinet had claimed it had belonged to 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913), the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection. At that time Wallace had sunk into relative obscurity, only familiar to those in world of science, so Heggestad was unaware of the potential gravity of the find.

It was only recently, with the resurgence of popular interest in Wallace, that Heggestad came to realize the potential of his collection. He began compiling binders filled with samples of handwriting from the labels which accompanied many of the specimens and proceeded to compare them with letters and other writings from Wallace and to the labels from only Wallace’s known collection, now in the British Museum. To his eye, the writing was a match.

He then hired graphologist and forensic document examiner, Beverly East, who compared the handwriting from the labels in Heggestad’s collection to the ones in the British Museum’s collection. Her conclusion? The handwriting was a match.

However, there are several problems with the notion that the collection was compiled by Wallace. George Beccaloni raises the fact that, to the best of his knowledge, the specimens in Heggestad’s collection do not bear a distinctive circular label, common to Wallace’s specimens in the British Museum. It is possible that the collection was put together before 1848, the date of the oldest specimens collected by Wallace, that do bear these labels. However, this presents a problem – how could Wallace, who was often in financially uncertain straits, procure the undoubtedly expensive cabinet?

Heggestad was able to trace the cabinet’s history back to Philadelphia, where, in 1964, it was bought by an antiques dealer and was again sold, at auction, in 1973. How the cabinet could have turned up in the States is still unknown.

The drawers do match the design that Wallace advocated and he often sold specimens he collected during his travels through an agent, Samuel Stevens, in order to support himself. He did visit America on a ten month lecture tour in 1886 – 1887 during which he visited several major cities, including Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., though he had sold most of his collections by the 1870’s.

The collection is now for sale – both the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History have expressed interest in acquiring it.

The Washington Post last month ran a front page article about the cabinet and its discovery, as well as some photographs. Additionally, there are articles on the story here and here. For more information about Wallace, see here and here.