Deepening mystery of disappearing microscope

In 1981 a lost treasure-trove of seventeenth-century specimens was unearthed by Brian J Ford, hidden among the archives of the Royal Society. They had been made by the microscope pioneer Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. Now he reveals that unknown Leeuwenhoek microscopes may be emerging from the most unlikely places…

We see Leeuwenhoek as a great pioneer who bequeathed to us a unique legacy of insight, plenty of documentation, some specimens and nine diminutive microscopes. I think one of the microscopes is a forgery, which reduces the surviving examples to eight; and of those, one has disappeared – but 2015 is going to reveal astonishing new findings. Two new microscopes of Leeuwenhoek’s type have just come to light. This could be the most dramatic revelation in the history of the microscope for decades.

The surviving Leeuwenhoek microscopes are made of silver or brass. Each has two adjustable screws – one for positioning the specimen, one for focussing – and a diminutive lens set between the two body plates that are riveted together. Five are at the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden, and the remainder are scattered across the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. The example in the Royal Antwerp Zoological Society, listed as No 2 in their collection, is in my view a replica. It is similar to one made by Leeuwenhoek, surely, but its lens mount is over-worked, the rivets aren’t right, and the main positioning screw is inconsistent with how Leeuwenhoek made his microscopes. The Antwerp microscope collection was the subject of a grand exhibition in 1891 without any mention of any Leeuwenhoek microscope. Many of the instruments on show belonged to Henri van Heurck, a professor of chemistry and amateur botanist. By the time he published the catalogue of his collection in 1914 – there suddenly appeared a ‘Leeuwenhoek microscope’ in his list. There was no provenance. I assume that he had commissioned a copy. It is very similar to the microscope in Utrecht, but it does not have the contours or the characteristically crude crafting of a genuine Leeuwenhoek construction.

The silver microscope that disappeared was bought at Christies on 8 April 2009 for £321,237.50. I bid for it in the early stages, and this proved to be one of the most astonishing events of my academic life; this small scrap of metal cost the buyer over half a million dollars. It was purchased by an agent in London who had to beat strong opposition, and who represented a major European biosciences organisation with the intention of placing it on public display. Although this was promised, it did not happen and the microscope disappeared. I maintain contact with the agents, and have spoken to them again; but the purchaser remains obdurate and will not reveal its whereabouts. This crucially important component of our scientific heritage remains lost from view.

Special Report 1

Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes were frequently made of silver, as is this example. One that is very similar has recently been discovered in a box of scrap silver and may turn out to be genuine. Research is currently under way to investigate its origins.

Then there was a dramatic development. A few weeks ago, a new Leeuwenhoek-type microscope emerged. It had been purchased in a box of small silver items by a dealer who brought it to Christie’s auction house for appraisal. I was immediately asked to examine it. This is certainly very like a Leeuwenhoek original. Small contemporaneous hallmarks were visible. These are not necessarily diagnostic – marks can be forged, and hallmarked silver from a discarded antique teapot could be used to make a replica microscope, complete with original markings. However, the contour, the shape, and the way the screw threads are cut, all are similar to an original. So we have a possible new Leeuwenhoek microscope on the scene. Further tests are being planned.

The second new candidate tells an even stranger tale. Shortly before Christmas, a group of battered-looking items appeared on eBay for auction. Their source was surprising. During the 1980s, when the canals at Delft were being cleared, the mud that was dredged out was taken to help to reclaim land nearby at Het Delftse Hout (the Delft wood), an extensive country park. Amateur collectors have started sifting through some of this mud, and had turned up the items now offered for sale. According to the seller’s description, it comprised:

Special Report 2

The auction site eBay listed this random collection of items dredged from a canal, including coins from the Dutch East India Company and a phlebotomist’s scalpel. In the centre is a microscope of Leeuwenhoek type, though the body plate has been rotated to be at ninety degrees.

A. A strange container with glass, perhaps medical?
B. Two dated voc coins.
C. Pair of tweezers for holding insects for microscope.
D. Parts from pair of compasses and some kind of weird drawing instrument?
F. Stone fishing net weight
E. Some kind of strange knife? With spring. Still Works well.
G. Bronze barrel and piece of twisted bone handle.

Item A is a specimen holder; the B coins marked “voc” were issued by the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie – the Dutch East India Company; C represents forceps or lifters; D denotes a pair of stage forceps, widely supplied with microscopes in the 19th century; E, the “strange kind of knife”, is a phlebotomist’s lancet; while F and G are as described. And then there is that “weird drawing instrument”.

The items were launched on eBay at the beginning of December 2014 with a reserve of $99. A bid for $100 was placed on the evening of 2 December; another for $120 was entered the following morning. By now, on-line collectors were wondering about the mysterious “weird drawing instrument” and the item was shared on Facebook – originally on the History of the Microscope page, and then on the Field Microscopes group. The links were sent across to me for an opinion. It was clear that, far from being miscellaneous objects of little interest, there was something intriguing about this particular little object. It seemed to be a Leeuwenhoek microscope. The body plate of the microscope had been rotated at 90 degrees from the main screw, so its real nature could not immediately be recognised.

Then items were quickly taken down by the vendor from eBay and the existing bids were cancelled. The vendor vanished from view, and refused to answer enquiries. The fragmentary photographs that remained on eBay did not provide much detail but I sifted through the images and eventually found sufficient examples to assemble an entire view of both sides of the microscope. Photoshop was then used to restore the components to their correct position – and there we have it: an unmistakeable Leeuwenhoek design.

Special Report 3

The Boerhaave Museum in Leiden holds an original brass microscope that is almost identical to the object dredged out in Delft. For fifty years they have produced replicas, and this provided a useful source of comparison. Note the straight and parallel edges, and the crisp, sharp machining.

This is not to say it has to be original – the design is reminiscent of a brass microscope in the Leiden collections. Hundreds of replicas of this design have been routinely produced for the Boerhaave Museum for sale, indeed there are over 150 of them in the Museum store as I write. So, could the new Delft microscope merely be one of those replicas? I don’t think that simple explanation does not stand up to scrutiny. Replicas are made with modern machinery and present-day lathes. Sides are parallel; tapers are regular; rivets are of a predictable and constant size. The tiny instruments Leeuwenhoek constructed have an irregularity about them, and the rounded corners are characteristic of his home-made efforts, and not of a machine-made product. Crucially, this example had been dredged, not from the mud in a Leiden canal, but from Leeuwenhoek’s home town of Delft.

The withdrawal of the items from eBay was because a Spanish collector had made contact with the vendor, and offered to buy the lot for €1,500. The deal was agreed, the money transfer was made, and the matter was closed – or so it seemed to the new purchaser. Nothing arrived in the mail. Then a message came through from the auction site; it reported that the item could no longer be found. It was lost. The seller said that much building work had been going on at his home, the items had probably been thrown out, and he sent back the payment.

A sceptic might conclude that the vendor was secretly storing the item away, ready to sell it for a higher price at some time in the future; but it is now out in the public domain. It is recognisable. If it did come up for sale, everyone in the field would know about it and it would still be the property of the Spanish buyer, and not the vendor in Delft.

Who knows – this little microscope may yet emerge and seek to find its place in the legacy from Leeuwenhoek. Extensive investigation into these fascinating artefacts will bring us closer to understanding their origins.

At the time of my study of the Leeuwenhoek specimens, many people reflected that this was a fascinating, final phase in uncovering the work of the founding father of microbiology. Fascinating it proved to be; final it was not. Over 500 microscopes were made by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in his fifty-year career. Others still survive. New searches may yet turn up more examples. Meanwhile, we need to recognise that canal mud is not like mud from the bottom of a river. People drop coins, car-keys, wallets into canals… and, it seems, perhaps antique microscopes too. Start looking!

 Author: Brian J Ford



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