A fellow American named Edwin Rist was a talented musician training to become a professional flautist at London’s Royal Academy Of Music when, in 2009, he took time off to journey to Tring, Hertfordshire.
There, under the cover of darkness, he broke into an outpost of the Natural History Museum and stole 299 priceless and irreplaceable antique bird skins, many of them collected by 19th-century naturalists at the height of the British Empire.
The Feather Thief largely follows the familiar beats of an entertaining true-crime procedural.
Rist was motivated by his obsession with tying fishing flies according to mostly Victorian patterns and using original, rare feathers.
Johnson explains how the esoteric hobby of fly-tying has become one of the internet’s stranger and more obsessive corners.
This is a pursuit for the sake of the art form rather than for anything as mundane as actually catching fish.
Here, as Johnson explains, you will find the “feather underground” and “a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, cokeheads and big game hunters, ex-detectives and shady dentists”.
Obsession drives them to acquire rare materials in defiance of the law.
After returning from a summer holiday in his native USA, Rist started openly selling a number of the bird skins and feathers online.
The feathers he stole were so rare that they were valued at £400,000. But their value to science was priceless.
After a fellow fly-tier tipped off the police, Rist was apprehended and ordered to pay more than £125,000 under the Proceeds Of Crime Act.
Rist escaped further penalties by claiming to have Asperger syndrome.
When Johnson eventually meets Rist, he expresses “serious doubts” about the veracity of Edwin’s diagnosis. He also spoke “to a number of people who knew Edwin who thought the Asperger diagnosis was bulls**t”.
Johnson’s book takes in a brief history of the feather trade with fascinating short chapters on Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who was the first to bring birds of paradise to Britain in the mid-19th century.
There is an account of how Walter Rothschild, a black sheep of the wealthy banking dynasty, amassed “the greatest private collection of bird skins and natural history specimens ever acquired by a single person” and which formed the basis of the Natural History Museum’s collection that Edwin Rist would plunder a century later.
Johnson contrasts the efforts of generations of naturalists and museum curators to preserve rare bird specimens in the interests of science with the likes of Rist, “the feather underground… the centuries of men and women who looted the skies and forests for wealth and status, driven by greed and the desire to possess what others didn’t”.
We learn how conspicuous consumption and the rise of fashion led many exotic birds to the point of extinction in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Johnson is furious about the fact that Rist, who is now a professional flautist in New York, essentially got away with his crime.
He merely repaid cash for stealing priceless and irreplaceable scientific specimens, a third of which were sold and are now untraceable.
“In the war between knowledge and greed,” Johnson concludes, “it sure seemed as though greed was winning.”