Oct 312007

Tonight I heard an interesting talk by Dr. Pamela Rasmussen, author of the two volume set, “Birds of South Asia: the Ripley guide.”

The last part of her talk was about her work in uncovering the fraud perpetrated by Richard Meinertzhagen in the first part of the 20th century. A lot of observations about the distribution of birds in south Asia had been credited to him, with museum specimens existing to back them up. Except it turns out that a lot of his specimens were frauds. In many cases he stole bird specimens out of other collections, doctored them and relabeled them as his own, making false claims as to where and when they had been found. Rasmussen was not the first person to make accusations of fraud, but her detective work showed that the fraud was a lot more extensive than anyone had known.

Meinertzhagen’s techniques, as described by her, reminded me of the Sandy Berger story. He would ask the curators for collections of specimens to study, but wouldn’t return them all. He was once found to have a briefcase full of them as he was leaving the U.K. museum where he was working. He had Berger-like stories to cover himself — the previous curator had allowed him to do it and he always returned them — except he didn’t always return them. He was banned from the museum for a year until an influential aristocrat by the name of Rothschild got him reinstated — and in the meantime he was stealing specimens from Rothschild, too. It was only in the 1990s that his fraud became known, though there had been people way back who had suspected.

Well, Hillary has been in the process of rehabilitating Sandy Berger like Rothschild did Meinertzhagen. But will Berger complete the parallel by stealing from Hillary, too? Probably not, but it made me laugh out loud to think about it. (People turned around and gave me strange looks.)