Morpho diana augustinae; Ex Col. E. Le Moult, Morpho diana

Item #:
Venezuela 1903-1908; Purchased in Paris
All Male
Morpho diana

Perhaps the most important drawer of butterflies to come to market in many decades, this drawer contains 11 Morpho diana augustinae, originally collected in 1903-1907 by the world-famous Eugene Le Moult. 

Eugene Le Moult (Dec 1882, Quimper-Jan 1967, Paris) was an entomologist, businessman, and collector. who grew up in the tropical colony of French Guiana. It was there, in French Guiana, where Le Moult would fall in love with the incredible metallic blues of the morpho butterfly, and dedicate his life's work to the field of entomology, specializing in butterflies and in particular morphos. In addition to his prolific collecting, writing, and scientific work, he was also an exporter supplying butterflies to the collectors' markets in Europe, North America, and Asia. Hirohito, The Emperor of Japan, Sergei Khrushcev, and Vladimir Nabokov were among some of his best private clients. When Le Moult traveled back to Paris in 1908, his collection was estimated to be the fourth largest in the world behind the Natural History Museums in London and Washington D.C. 

When his personal collection was eventually auctioned off in Paris after his death, it would be the largest sale of butterflies in the world, at over 1 million specimens.

The Morpho dianas from his collection would be purchased from that sale by a man named Jean Francois, here is his incredible story:

My name is Jean François and I am a mathematician. I have Italian (jointly with US, since 1972) citizenship; Jean François is the French translation of Giovanni Francesco and comes from the fact that my family lived in Paris in the period 1947/1958 where I completed my university studies (at the Sorbonne) and I signed my first publications under the Jean François name - more palatable to a French readership. At the time, only French citizen were admitted to teaching positions and on completion of my Doctorat ès Science (roughly equivalent to the US PhD) my thesis supervisor secured for me a position of assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. At the time I was not fluent in English, having never practiced nor even studied the language.
I mentioned my thesis supervisor, Proffesor Laurent, not because he is famous (in the world of mathematics; he won the Fields medal in 1950 - at the time the math equivalent of the Nobel prize) but because he initiated me to butterfly collecting. That happened accidentally when, in August 1960 on his visit to Berkeley, he asked me whether I would drive him and his son Marc André from California to Boulder, Co., where he had been invited to speak at a joint meeting Theoretical Physics/Mathematics. While in Colorado the three of us spent a day on Mt Evans; he had suggested the excursion because it was the right time for collecting high altitude Colias, as well as P. parnassus. I was only the driver, mostly standing against my car and smoking, while the two exhausted themselves to catch as many butterflies as they could. Due to the elevation (just below 14000 feet) they did not last long. When they relented and had to sit down panting, they asked me if I wanted to try my hand at catching a few. I accepted and found the exercise very exciting - almost as exciting as gambling at a casino (to which I had a strong attraction, fortunately not an addiction).
From that day on I became a passionate collector. It did well with my professional activities since, at the time, research mathematicians were sort of globe trotters. On my way to a lengthy stay in Brazil in 1960 I met with Laurent in Venezuela, the first of our two meetings in that country (the second one was
more eventful, with our walking at dusk in the forest, into the awe-inspiring roar of a jaguar). Our first visit was to a high elevation forest in the Andes, where he was hoping to catch some very local species. As a beginner I was longing to catch Morphos, large Papilios and spectacular Nymphalides - we never saw any of these and I was quite disappointed by our days catch. Nightime was another story: we hung big white bedsheets under UV lamps. The result was spectacular, about half an inch of insects covered the sheets, among them some beautiful moths (some Rothchildia, if memory serves), to the delight of our party. Other memorable night collecting happened in the ruins of Palenque before the tourist era. my young wife Ursula and I had to rent a small plane to make the round trip Villa Hermosa-Palenque and there was no paved road to the ruins. We instructed a handful of local guys to survey the white sheets under the UV light at night and pick up the specimens of moths that seemed interesting. They did an excellent job. Unfortunately, at our celebration on the last evening, a soda bottle exploded in the hands of Laurent severing some ligaments in his hands and arms; this lead to repeated surgical interventions, first in Mexico City and later in Paris. Talking of nocturnal collecting I had done some in 1960, on the Corcovado (Rio de Janeiro) during my stays at a small, charming hotel at Paineiras managed by a Swiss couple, in the heart of the forest (now totally engulfed in the jungle since the whole Corcovado has become a nature reserve). My routine was to get up during the night several times, after having substituted UV lamps for the ordinary ones outside the hotel; I caught nice sets of Saturnidae but I never became a collector of moths. Nevertheless, in a week-long family trip down the Ucayali (a tributary of the Amazon) in a very small passenger boat, the routine of substituting UV for ordinary lights on the boat bore fruit and lead to the discovery of a new species of moth, later described by an entomologist in Paris to whom we provided some specimens.
After a few years of this type of collecting, I became convinced, and I convinced Laurent that if we wanted to build a serious collection we had to buy the insects, either locally, as we were to do very successfully in Peru (above all in Tingo Maria, just across the Cordillera from Lima), or at auction sales. My justification was that we never encountered a truly rare butterfly in our numerous stays in South America - and this remained true to the day when age compelled us to end personal collecting.
In the 1960's and 70's the Hotel Drouot in Paris held excellent auction sales of butterflies and Laurent had wide connections with entomologists who kept him informed when one of these was impending and what would be available. That is where my story intersects with the Le Moult collection. Eugene Le Moult
died in 1967; his collection was world reknown and was not immediately available for sale; entomologists were starting to worry about its maintenance, but it turned out that, in the few years after Le Moult's death, despite a certain degree of negligence no damage was visible. The sale of its bulk at the Hotel Drouot took place over several days; buyers came from Asia and America, museum curators as well as individual collectors and merchants. Laurent alerted me that, at the end, the buying participants at the sale seemed to be exhausted and on the last day, there were a number of boxes of morphos still for sale. Was I interested? Of course I was and I acquired a number of boxes, practically all from Tucupita, Venez. Among them a box of 22 Diana Augustinae, unfortunately, only males. Among our Le Moult acquisitions (most with a sticker bearing Le Moult.s signature) I should also mention a peculiar box of Menelaus varieties, pinned with their undersides up.
A couple of decades later I persuaded a Venezuelan colleague and friend to drive to Tucupita and look for morphos. We were surprised to see how many houses there were on the river's shores, under the mango trees, a kind of Orinoco suburbia; we did not see any Diana augustinae, actually, we did not even see one morpho (seasons and precise locations are crucial). From the time of our marriage Ursula and I (later with our two boys) went butterfly collecting all over Central and South America. A memorable catch was by Ursula of a female Anaxibia, in perfect state, in Paineiras at 7 a.m. We had noticed that the females only showed up around that time. The one I am talking about dived from very high, vertically to the water of a small fountain where U. caught it. There were other exciting catches, a P. Zagreus by our son Adrian in Balcon del Napo in Ecuador, many M. Sulkowski when Ursula and I went to Oxapampa in Peru, on Christmas 1963.


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