CONTINUED FROM COLIN WYATT’S BUTTERFLY HEIST
English butterfly fancier Colin Wyatt had travelled all over Australia during the WWII, while serving with the R.A.A.F. It had allowed him to increase his already remarkable collection. However, there were gaps that he passionately wanted to fill, especially specimens of rare Australian Blues and other varieties from remote areas.
In the twelve months following the end of the war he remedied this situation by betraying the trust of friends and associates and stealing butterflies from museums.
The most unforgivable breach of trust involved the elderly expert Gustavus Waterhouse. Wyatt gained access to the extensive collection donated to Sydney’s Australian Museum by Dr. Waterhouse in 1935. He did this by convincing staff that he was intending to revise
Waterhouse’s classic book What Butterfly is That? He said he had the approval of the original publishers, Angus & Roberston, which simply wasn’t true.
News of the brazen theft was withheld from Dr. Waterhouse, who was in very poor health, but he read about it in the press. In earlier years he had risked his life to collect some of the rare butterflies now missing.
Another friend Wyatt had made in Australia was Mr A.N. Burns. who was in charge of butterflies at The Melbourne Museum. Wyatt and Burns went on a butterfly hunting excursion together in New South Wales in 1946. Burns then decided to remain in the State for a few days. The sneaky Wyatt took advantage of this. He flew to Melbourne and charmed staff into granting him unsupervised time among the cases of specimens. Over a period of 48 hours he removed over 800 butterflies.
At the Adelaide Museum it was thought that he secreted himself in the building, spent the night filling containers with selected specimens, then simply walked out next morning with his pockets full.
At the ensuing trial Wyatt pleaded guilty to having stolen the butterflies, and even explained how and why he did it. Transcripts of the court case were made by the British Museum of Natural History and are held by the National Library of Australia. Here is an extract from Wyatt’s testimony;
The problem was that Wyatt didn’t actually spend his evening arranging and classifying them at all. Instead, he replaced the original cards with fake locations, invented collectors, and dates that would tally with his time spent in this country.
Wyatt’s defence lawyer argued that his client had been a lonely, delicate child whose father had encouraged him to collect butterflies.
He said that Wyatt’s marriage had finally brought him happiness and that its breakup affected him so badly that he behaved completely out of character. Butterfly collecting was his only hobby and he had not intended selling them.
Only hobby? What about skiing, painting and playing the accordion? Not to mention that fine art of yodelling. 😨 Anyway, the magistrate accepted much of what the defense said. No doubt his worship considered that liberating butterflies from colonial institutions was not really a crime (think of all the native artifacts taken ‘home’ over the generations.) Instead of a receiving prison sentence Wyatt was fined a mere one hundred pounds.
Once the correct museum had been established there remained the almost impossible task of correcting labels. The scientific value of collections rests on exact dates and locations of capture and Wyatt had made a mockery of this. To many specimens he gave the location as ‘Iron Range, North Queensland’, a completely fictitious place.]
Museum staff retained their sense of humour throughout what must have been very difficult circumstances. A card was filed under Wyatt’s name in the Australian Museum collector’s records that reads;
WYATT, COLIN. VISITED AUSTRALIA AUGUST, 1939 – JANUARY, 1947. COLLECTED BUTTERFLIES (UNDER THE PSEUDONYMS OF ‘J.B.’ AND ‘G. PURCELL’) FROM MANY LOCALITIES IN THE VARIOUS MUSEUMS OF AUSTRALIA.
On a more serious note. it was proposed that specimens recovered after the thefts have a note attached stating ‘Passed through the C.Wyatt theft collection, 1946/7′ …a warning that the classification information may not be accurate.
Oddly enough Wyatt found himself back in court the following year on an entirely different matter;
The travellers intended to circumnavigate Australia, with visits to most state capitals. I can imagine directors of museums hastily beefing up their security measures.
The shadow of Wyatt’s theft hung over Australian museums for years. Just before Christmas 1951 the Director of the Museum of Victoria wrote a letter of concern to the head of the Entomology Department of the British Museum of Natural History;
Colin Wyatt died in 1975, killed in a plane crash after climbing a volvano in Guatemala, on another of his adventures. He had remarried and in May 2023 his daughter Monica posted the following in an Australian entomology group, The Insect Collectors’ forum. The case of the stolen butterflies had been discussed there several years earlier. Perhaps it is only fair to reproduce her defense of her father here;
In addition to articles and scientific papers, Colin Wyatt published an autobiography in 1955 called Going Wild. It covers his time in Australia although, surprise surprise, some aspects of his stay are not mentioned. 😎
The Wyatt collection purchased by the German museum that his daughter mentions consisted of 90,000 specimens.
What a complex character the man was; talented, charismatic, but seemingly without conscience.