Published on 01 September 2011 in Letters

It is well established that, in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the prices paid by wealthy collectors for a single specimen of a British-taken rare bird could exceed the monthly earnings of the average tradesman. It has been suggested that this was a motivation for fraud, not least in the case of the 592 documented ‘Hastings Rari- ties’ specimens collected between 1892 and 1930 (Nicholson & Ferguson-Lees 1962). To George Bristow, the taxidermist who is suspected of knowingly passing on several hundred fraudulent specimens during the Hastings period, this additional income pre- sumably represented a significant sum, although James Harrison, in his defence of Bristow, pointed out that he showed no signs of conspicuous wealth (Harrison 1968).

Recently, when the exhibitions were closed as prelude to a planned refurbishment of the Royal Museum of Scotland (RMS), 14 mounted specimens that had been prepared by Bristow were located in the British birds gallery. These and ten other specimens were acquired during 1913 and 1914, when the Museum was redeveloping and expanding its natural history displays under the direction of William Eagle Clarke. This mixture of rare birds and more common migrants is listed in table 1. There are three noteworthy issues. The first is that there was clearly no con- temporary doubt regarding these spec- imens, otherwise the museum would not have bought them. Harry With- erby, then editor of British Birds, was to challenge Bristow about the prove- nance of the Hastings Rarities only in 1916. Second is that there are some rare birds that were not recorded else- where or tabulated in Nicholson & Ferguson-Lees (1962). Third is that the prices paid, though perhaps not excessive for each bird, were neverthe- less cumulatively substantial. James Harrison (1968) also drew attention to the fact that not all of Bristow’s birds had been documented, and the acqui- sitions by the RMS suggest that there may yet be rather a lot of unrecorded specimens (table 1). Some, such as the Pine Grosbeak Pinicola enucleator (plate 286) and Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris (plate 287), are possibly related to known Hastings Rarities but others, such as the Black-headed Wagtail Motacilla flava feldegg (plate 288), are completely new. The Wagtail is more worn than is typical for May birds.