In 2009, 20-year-old Edwin Rist broke into a natural history museum in Tring, a small market town in rural Hertfordshire, England, with a population of less than 12,000.
Rist, an American studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, had spent months casing the museum, which had been founded as an offshoot of London’s British Natural History Museum during World War II in an effort to spare its artifacts from the Blitz.
While that plan paid off in the short term, about 70 years down the line, the contents of the museum eventually fell prey to a young, plundering foreigner. Upon gaining entry to the museum, Rist sought out his quarry with clinical precision.
He eventually escaped with hundreds of rare bird skins, collected from the far reaches of the British Empire more than a century before. At the time of the heist, Rist’s loot had a black market value of around a million dollars, though that number has supposedly “quintupled” since the publication of “The Feather Thief,” an investigative nonfiction account by author Kirk Wallace Johnson.
Johnson’s exposé links Victorian pastimes to modern-day fly-fishing and fly-tying enthusiasts, and dives headlong into Rist’s bold criminal undertaking in what the book’s subtitle rightly dubs the “natural history heist of the century.”
Since hitting the shelves in 2018, “The Feather Thief” has been swimming in accolades. It was named one of the best books of the year by Amazon.com, Mental Floss, Outside, Popular Mechanics and Forbes. The American Birding Association named it Best of 2018, and Oprah Winfrey ranked it on her list of the 20 best true-crime books of all time.
This incredible story and all it says about the black market, the trade of rare and endangered animals and the ways in which such things ripple through the global economy will form the basis for Johnson’s upcoming lecture at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum, presented by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
Johnson’s lecture will mark the second major event in The Center’s new Big Idea project, following the unveiling of a new visual arts exhibition last Friday, Aug. 30.
From then until Nov. 8, the theme “Marketplaces: From Open Air to Online” will unify a series of lectures, film screenings, workshops and other events and activities for The Center. Out of the entire months-long lineup, “The Feather Thief” poses perhaps the most unusual examination of marketplaces, exposing facets of the global economy that few would think to consider.
“The book exposes rare bird trafficking and links to the world of fly-tying enthusiasts,” said Katelyn Foley, The Center’s director of education and humanities. “It is a colorful, true tale, mixing natural history and crime.”
That colorful and extraordinary story came as a surprise to Johnson, too.
“I had no idea that this bizarre story about a subculture and the heist it spawned was going to telescope into something much bigger,” he said.
Long before he first heard of Rist or Tring, Johnson had headed up the reconstruction of Fallujah in the fallout of the war in Iraq. During his time there, he became horrified to learn of the ways that Iraqis who helped U.S. forces were being tracked down and murdered, and soon founded a charity—the List Project—to sponsor Iraqi refugees fleeing to the states.
He relates those events in his first book, “To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight To Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.” Psychologically and emotionally, that work took its toll on Johnson. Fly-fishing soon became one of his few reliable comforts in life.
“The only piece of mind I could get was when I started fly-fishing,” he said. “It became a personal refuge for me. I was in a very long battle trying to get these people out and feeling more often than not that I was failing. It was during one of these escapist fly-fishing trips in New Mexico that the guy I’d hired that day as a guide started talking about a million dollars’ worth of birds stolen from this British museum. It was such a captivating seed of a story that it became a private obsession, but I had no clue it existed before that.”
As much as the story is innately fascinating because of its unusual nature, there is much more at play in “The Feather Thief” than simple novelty and head-scratching oddity.
“This is ultimately about all of us,” Johnson said. “It’s about our relationship to the natural world, about competing for status and what that competition to do to our moral compass.”
Rist was an avid fly-tying enthusiast, and knew of a community of people who follow old Victorian fly recipes, which often call for exotic feathers, as a hobby. As Johnson observes, “the overwhelming majority of men obsessed with Victorian flies don’t actually know how to fish.”
It is a matter of elitism, a particularly expensive and niche pastime in which only a handful of people around the world can indulge, but the story does not begin and end with them.
“The reason these birds are so hard to find is not because of this subculture,” Johnson explained. “It’s because the whole Western culture was plundering them a century ago.”
Following this avenue, Johnson opens up a conversation about conservation, about humanity’s responsibility to the natural world and the ways in which even an isolated group of individuals can perpetuate destructive patterns and contribute to the endangerment of animals.
Another unfortunate truth that Johnson explores in his book is the idea of an animal’s “charisma score,” the fact that some creatures are more inherently attractive to humans than others. As he said, “It’s easy to convince people to combat the trafficking of rhinos or elephants or pandas, but ask them to care about an endangered spider or Amazonian bird? People might not really care that much.”
Much like his book, Johnson’s lecture for The Center will aim to convince his audience members why they should care, and how this entertaining and exciting piece of true-crime literature sows the seeds for an intense analysis of the interplay between the natural world, the black market and the average human.
Johnson’s lecture will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 12, at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, 100 Saddle Road in Ketchum.
Tickets are now available for $15-$30, varying in price from students to Center members to nonmembers. Visit sunvalleycenter.org, call 208-726-9491 or stop by The Center at 191 Fifth St. E. in Ketchum.