The Bement Collection of Minerals

Jun 16, 2021

The Bement Collection of Minerals is one of just celebrity, and in the quality of its contents, the average beauty, in some cases, the unique perfection of its specimens, secures a deserved eminence. It is a collection naturally, which abounds in very beautiful and very rare and scientifically precious mineral examples. It represents the sifted and compressed results of a lifetime of collecting, in which the widest latitude of liberal appraisement of specimens has been met on the part of Mr. Bement by as boundless a generosity. There can be no question as to its importance— Gratacap (1912)

Clarence S. Bement

Clarence Sweet Bement (1843–1923), a manufacturer in Philadelphia, spent 35 years of his time, money, and effort in acquiring his magnificent mineral collection. He began to collect minerals shortly after the end of the Civil War, in about 1866; continually adding to it until its purchase from him by the banker and philanthropist J.P. Morgan in 1901, who presented it as a gift to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) that same year. Bement sold his collection only after his eyesight began to fail him (Seaman, 1968). The Bement collection is considered to be the finest mineral collection ever assembled in the United States (MATRIX, 1989a). The mineral Bementite was named after him in 1887.

Bement, the greatest American mineral collector

Mineral collecting

Bement patronized the leading mineral dealers of his days. He purchased specimens over the years from Charles Herman, Albert H. Perereit, George L. English, Charles H. Pennypacker, William Niven, Maynard Bixby, Prof. Henry A. Ward, Lazard Cahn, Dr. A.E. Foote, and many others. G.L. English, one of the most noted dealers of that era, considered Bement to be “our great American collector” (Seaman, 1968). Writing in the Mineral Collector of 1901, dealer Charles H. Pennypacker stated: “in the decades that have past, again and again, has one of these, “pennywise and pound foolish” people asked me how it was that all of the fine things went into the Bement collection. I would reply: That’s an easy one. You belong to the skinflint fraternity. You are always afraid that you will pay too much for a mineral, and when you find out that some other collector has secured a better specimen than yours at a price less than you paid, you mourn as one without hope. None of these traits exist in Mr. Bement, he long since understood the situation. There is no standard value, there is no rule whereby mineral specimens may be accessed” (Seaman, 1968).

Bement acquired numerous specimens of minerals by exchange or purchase with many collectors and dealers in Europe and America making his collection labels some Who’s Who of the mineral collectors of the latter half of the 19th century. A long list of names is given in Seaman (1968). At various times, Bement secured the privilege of picking out the best samples from the minerals accumulated by earlier collectors. He purchased part of the Norman Spang collection in 1882. In the same year, he also bought the Hidden collection, that of Baron Braun of Vienna and some others. He secured fine Swiss minerals from the Burke collection of Bern and Graves Mountain rutiles from the collections of both the Stephensons, father, and son. Collectors and dealers would often let him cherry-pick the best specimens before the rest would be sold at retail (e.g. Ernest Schernikow and Joseph Willcox collections, see Canfield, 1923).

A Neudorf specimen of Galena & Siderite crystals, Neudorf, Harz, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, ex. C.S. Bement / AMNH / H. Obodda. Source: The Tricottet Collection.

The best crystallized minerals and display specimens available were always sought by Bement for his collection. An example is shown above, in the present case, a fine Neudorf Galena specimen with Siderite crystals, one of the top “holy grails” of sophisticated collectors of previous generations. This cabinet specimen features excellent Siderite rhombs of iridescent golden-brown colour, on modified cuboctahedral Galenas with good metallic luster (all on sparkling Quartz). The intergrown Galenas range up to 1.8 cm across and the Siderites reach up to 1.6 cm on edge while the specimen measures 9.6 x 7.5 x 6.0 cm.

Some published correspondence between Bement and George F. Kunz provides some anecdotal information about his collecting process (Conklin, 1986). A rare glimpse into the atmosphere of Bement’s study is found in an 1895 letter, part of The Tricottet Collection. It reads: “I duly received your favor of October 18th, and would say in reply that I shall be at home next Sunday afternoon, ready to receive you and your wife, as suggested. Please come rather early, if you can, — say at two o’clock, so as to have as much daylight as possible, for my mineral room is very dark”.

Source: The Tricottet Collection.

Other collections

Let us note that Bement also assembled one of the finest collections of U.S. coins. He was also an assiduous collector of rare books and fine prints. His collection of books, begun in 1890, formed the nucleus of the Harry Elkins Widener Library, later on, presented to Harvard University. He also made a collection of Continental paper money, which was merged into the Chapman collection in Philadelphia. In the last part of his life, he devoted himself to the collecting of ancient Greek coins and owned a large number of valuable Greek and Roman gold and silver coins (MATRIX, 1989a). There is evidence that Bement, at one time, liquidated his books to finance his mineral purchases (letter from Oct. 16, 1896, in Conklin, 1986) but the two interests overlap for many years (MATRIX, 1989b).

The Bement collection at the AMNH

The Bement-Morgan collection

John Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), who we crossed paths with in other articles (e.g. Bernard Franck collection), presented the Bement collection as a gift to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in 1901. At that time, the collection numbered some 12,000 specimens of minerals and contained some 580 meteorites. It formed the nucleus of both the mineral collection and the meteorite collection of the AMNH. Morgan had paid $100,000 for the extraordinary collection. His largesse to the AMNH, of which he was a Trustee, had started in the late 19th century with the $15,000 purchase of the collection of “Gems and Precious Stones from North America” arranged for the Exposition Universelle in Paris by George F. Kunz of Tiffany and Company. Known as the Tiffany-Morgan Collection of Gems, the collection was further expanded after Morgan commissioned Kunz to acquire fabulous specimens from around the world (AMNH website).

The so-called Bement-Morgan collection of minerals has been exhibited in the Morgan Hall, which is pictured on the rare postcard shown below. Gratacap (1912) explains that “its present position in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is of incomparable value to all students and collectors and dealers. It is placed in a central, accessible, and finely equipped stadium. It can all be seen, well seen, and seen at all times.” It means that the mineral specimens displayed on this page once sojourned in those glass cabinets!

‘The Bement Collection of Minerals’ in Gratacap (1912) & its display in the Morgan Hall (postcard). Source: The Tricottet Collection.

Historic Scheelite crystal from Traversella Mine, Piedmont, Italy, ex. C.S. Bement / AMNH / E. Rosenzweig. Source: The Tricottet Collection.

Specimen labelling

Specimens from the Bement collection at the AMNH carry a painted inventory number and are accompanied by an AMNH cardboard label. An example was shown previously (see Neudorf specimen) and a second one here on the left (Scheelite crystal from Traversella, Italy — to be described in more detail later). The AMNH also kept the original Bement labels, glued on collection index cards. Those index cards provide the following information: original label, description, name, locality, collection, value, number, and number of specimens. Mineral specimens deaccessioned from the AMNH only come with facsimiles of those cards, as the AMNH keeps all index cards for archiving purposes. The index card then indicates that the specimen has been exchanged, with the name of the new holder and the date of the exchange. An example is shown below, for our Neudorf specimen (we learn that the specimen originally cost 4$ in c. 1900 and that it was traded to Herb Obodda on March 6, 1980):

Facsimile of a Bement specimen index card at the AMNH. Notice the label penned by Bement himself, glued on the card. Source: The Tricottet Collection.

The Gratacap (1912) collection catalogue

The Bement collection is described in ‘The Bement Collection of Minerals’, in the second part of the book ‘Popular Guide to Minerals’ by Gratacap (1912). Louis Pope Gratacap (1850–1917) became Curator of Mineralogy at the AMNH in 1890. It was under his direction that the 12,000-piece Bement mineral collection was sorted, catalogued, and displayed in the Morgan Hall of Minerals (see postcard above). It was considered in 1918 by Kunz to be the best-displayed collection of minerals (and gems) in the United States or abroad (Kunz, 1918). Gratacap, along with Kunz, was one of the founders of the New York Mineralogical Club in 1886.

The classic, old-time example of Scheelite from the historic Italian locale of Traversella, shown above, is listed in Gratacap (1912) (only a limited number of the 12,000+ specimens are!). This specimen consists of a modified, pseudo-octahedral crystal with sharply defined faces, marked luster, and a deep orangey colour (dimensions: 3.9cm x 3.3cm x 2cm). The Scheelite paragraph reads “… Bohemia, Saxony, Germany at Guttenen, Switzerland, France, Scotland, England, Silesia, are represented with, of course, a good deal of emphasis laid on Bohemia. Of these the noteworthy members are 16899, 16901, 16902, 16903, 16905, (tabular, interesting, base and pyramid, crystals, curiously etched, and minutely pitted), 16906 (distorted, beautifully shagreened faces, translucent), 16907, 16909 (apparently two generations of crystals), (16918, 16919, (magnificent golden-red octahedron), 16928, 16929, (a very large yellow opaque octaedron, with faces impressed, striated, and curved)…

The Scheelite specimen listed in Gratacap (1912). Source: The Tricottet Collection.

Let us conclude by quoting a brochure on ‘The Final Disposition of some American Collections of Minerals’ compiled by Frederick A. Canfield and published in 1923. On the Bement collection, we read: “This was the finest private collection of minerals ever made. It is the best public collection in America — it has but two rivals in the world.” The final question is: what are the two other collections that Canfield was referring to, which rivaled the Bement collection?

This is a modified version of an excerpt from a book in preparation on the history of collecting, courtesy of The Tricottet Collection.

References

Conklin, L.H. (1986), Notes and Commentaries on Letters to George F. Kunz, Selected correspondence including letters of Clarence S. Bement. Self-published, New Canaan, 137 pp. [copy in TC: Association copy, inscribed by the author to collector and friend William W. Pinch: “4–13–91 For Bill — Few people have known me longer, and I hope, not better, Larry”, with Pinch library hard stamp]

Gratacap, L.P. (1912), A Popular Guide to Minerals, With chapters on the Bement Collection of Minerals in the American Museum of Natural History… D. Van Nostrand Company, New York, 330 pp. & 74 plates.

Kunz, G.F. (1918), Biographical sketch of the late L.P. Gratacap. The American Museum Journal, 18 (4), 302–304.

MATRIX (1989a), Clarence Sweet Bement 1843–1923 (by George Frederick Kunz, edited by Joseph J. Peters and Charles L. Pearson, Jr.). MATRIX, 1 (3), 42–43.

MATRIX (1989b), Clarence S. Bement — Book Collector. MATRIX, 2 (2), 30.

Peters, J.J., Pearson, C.L. (1990), Clarence S. Bement: The consummate collector. The Mineralogical Record, 21, 47-62 [WANTED]

Seaman, D.M. (1968), The Clarence S. Bement Collection. Rocks & Minerals, 43 (11), 803-808.