May 2015 | Rebecca Rego Barry

The Smithsonian's Catalogue Card No. 1

Smithson-List-1-autographs.jpgJames Smithson, after whom the Smithsonian Institution is named, was a rock hound.

This 1820 manuscript, in his hand, is an inventory describing the collection he kept in a mahogany cabinet. At the top, Smithson has written, "Catalogue of my Cabinet: 1820" before commencing to list his rocks and minerals--pyrites, green micaceous stone from Switzerland, bog iron ore, etc.

The incredible document, "almost certainly the only one in private hands" says bookseller Nathan Raab of the Raab Collection, was recently deaccessioned from a New Jersey institution and is now for sale for $75,000. Prior to its NJ residency, the manuscript had been owned by William Jones Rhees, the Smithsonian's chief clerk from 1852 until the early 1890s.

Smithson is an intriguing character. Born in 1765 an illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland, he pursued natural sciences with particular attention to mineralogy. He never married, and when he made his will, he decided that should his nephew/heir also die childless, his entire collection should be shipped to the United States "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men." He died in 1829, and the Smithsonian Institution was founded, after much legal wrangling, in 1846.

Image: Courtesy of Raab Collection.