Sunday 28 February 2010

Today at the Mineral Show

On Sunday I was looking round the International Mineral Fair in Warsaw when I saw the following scene enacted at the table next to me:

Collector: "Good day good sir, that's a fine display of bits of calcite you have there."
Dealer: "Thank you, maybe you'd like to buy some, look at this one for example".
Collector: "how much are they?"
Dealer: "One for five zloties, three for ten."
Collector: "Hmmm, nice price. I'll have this one... this and... this".
Dealer: "Nice choice, Sir, that'll be ten zloties. I'll just wrap them in tissue and pop them in a bag. Will that be all?"
Collector: "Yes, can you write on a label where they're from...."
The hall immediately fell silent. An audible indrawing of breath could be heard.
The dealer paused in wrapping the specimens and looked at the man over the top of his glasses.
"What?", he asked curtly.
"Where they come from, where they were dug up".
The dealer stood up and glared at the man. He opened and shut his mouth.
"Why do you want to know?" he asked suspiciously.
All around me I felt necks craning as other tried to catch the man's words.
"I just want to know where they came from, are they all from the same locality?"
"I cannot tell you that"
"Why not?"
"I can't. Ten zloties please". He held out the bag, clasping it tightly.
"Well, is it from Poland or another country?" the customer asked plaintively.
The dealer looked the man in the eyes: "TEN zloties please - Sir".
An older man standing behind the customer sidled closer and barely audibly gave him some paternalistic advice, "leave it sir, we don't want any trouble here, do we?" At this he motioned with his eyes to two young men in denim jackets watching the scene intently from the edge of the hall by the exit.
The customer reflected, nodded, meekly handed over the cash, crumpling the note into the dealer's hand, turned and walked away from his table, with the other customers staring at him. The customer who had asked.

Actually, it was not like that at all.
I had amused myself for a couple of hours wandering round with a lady friend picking up bits of rock priced at five to ten zloties (to give an idea of price a 660 ml bottle of beer is four zloties) and asking where precisely they were from. Oddly enough, not a single dealer I asked was at all surprised that I had asked. Most of them actually had printed labels with the name of the specimen, and the place it was from ready to put in with even common specimens taken from a grab-box when somebody bought one. I saw others writing them by hand upon a purchase. The (only) three dealers who only knew the country a mineral had come from were apologetic about not knowing any more details. At the other extreme were the dealers who not only knew the name of the place, but could tell you something about it if you asked, about where the minerals or fossils come from, who digs them out sometimes. The people who sell these items are obviously not in it for the money, but passionate about what they do and take an interest in all its aspects.

Of course a variety of people go to such shows. Nine year olds who want a "really cool real shark's tooth" or a piece of "fossil dinosaur poo- eeeuww" are not going to ask where they are from. Neither are the huge numbers of people there (usually large heavily made-up females) who believe stroking crystals of certain minerals is good for their health. Even so, the dealers are prepared with the details for those who want to know, and for mineral collectors, information about provenance is regarded as important.

How much of a contrast this is with what antiquity currently dealers do. Antiquity dealers claim that "many of my items are so cheap that it is too much trouble to keep check of where they are coming from". Collectors in turn obviously do not ask enough times to make it worthwhile for dealers to keep documentation. But the specimens I was looking at today were deliberately chosen to be the cheapest there, and certainly they were a lot cheaper than many "minor antiquities". I do admit however to some bias, like most customers in the know, I would have kept well away from the tables where the blood diamonds and fossils stolen from Sites of Special Scientific Interest protected by law were being sold by representatives of Russian and Serbian mafia. Perhaps if I'd asked them, I might not have learnt the sources of the items on sale so easily. But fortunately I did not see any of them.

It is interesting to do a search on "collecting rocks and minerals". Here are a few random examples that came up at the top of my Google search.

Rocks for kids: "Remember to keep a label with it which tells you where you collected the rock and the date".
Beginners' Guide to Collecting Rocks and minerals "it is suggested that the collector permanently label his or her specimens".
Collecting rocks: "A good rock collection consists of selected, representative, properly labeled specimens".
Collect & Identify Rocks & Minerals "As you identify each specimen, make a label for it. If possible, write down the location and the date when the rock or mineral was collected".
"Rockhounding Arkansas": "the importance of labels"

There are probably lots more, but we get the point. There were none that said, "shove them in an unlabelled heap on a shelf and pick them up when you want to imagine what it was like in olden times". In order to merit the term "collector", collectors of geological specimens are careful about labelling and provenance. The damaging no-questions-asked trade of antiquities thrives on the fact that collectors of archaeological material like coins and Roman geegaws bought from dealers seldom are. Like the touchy-feely crystal fondlers.

Photo: A previous year's Międzynarodowe Wystawy i Giełdy Minerałów, Skamieniałości i Wyrobów Jubilerskich

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