On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin’s obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.
Rist had been there before, months earlier, posing as a student photographer. He was granted access to the collection, and used his time to case the place, taking photographs of the layout of the museum, and making a mental map of the location of each species.
After scaling a wall behind the museum and breaking out a window, the champion fly-tier climbed inside and set out to work. He grabbed hundreds of bird skins—some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin’s, Alfred Russel Wallace, who’d risked everything to gather them—and escaped into the darkness.
Not too long after that, I was waist-high in a frigid river in northern New Mexico, fly-fishing for trout, when the guide I’d hired for the day mentioned a recent museum heist, carried out to feed the insatiable demand for rare feathers in the salmon fly-tying community. The whole story was so strange as to be almost unbelievable. I had never written a book when I first heard about the Tring Heist, but thought it sounded like a whale of a story, and started poking around, not realizing how quickly I’d be dragged into the feather underground.
I was at an impasse in my own life, after having spent the better part of a decade confronting the humanitarian consequences of the Iraq War. (After coordinating the reconstruction of Fallujah for the U.S. Agency for International Development, I launched a non-profit devoted to helping Iraqis that were being hunted as ‘collaborators’ for their work alongside American aid workers, diplomats, soldiers, and Marines. I fought to get visas for thousands of these Iraqis, but increasingly felt trapped by a never-ending war that the country had already forgotten). I began fly-fishing, obsessively, as a way of escaping to a quiet place, where my cell phone would stop working and I could think about something else.
What followed was a sprawling, six-year investigation, taking me around the globe in search of Edwin, the missing skins, and some measure of justice. The Feather Thief is that account.
Note: anyone interested in booking Spencer Seim, the remarkable fly-fishing guide in Taos who first told me about the Tring Heist, should visit his site at Ziafly.com (where you can also order one of his beautifully-tied ‘sustainable’ salmon flies, which use feathers from dyed game birds instead of exotic species).