Memories of
Albert Chapman
Australia's Greatest Mineral Collector

A Tribute by Sir Howard Smith

Australia's Greatest Mineral Collector, Albert Chapman passed away on July 20th 1996. His friend of many years Sir Howard Smith penned this tribute.

Sydney mineral collector Albert Chapman had the rare distinction of bestriding the years between the last of the great 19th century collectors and the advent of the great 20th century collectors who are still forming their collections in this second Golden Age of mineral collecting, which began about the middle of this century.

It was in about 1928 that Albert, then about 12 years of age, became interested in the coloured minerals found among piles of ‘blue metal’ which in those days were dumped beside many Sydney roadsides along stretches destined for macadamising. Since much of the ‘blue metal’ came from the famous quarries at Prospect, west of Sydney, samples of brown and green prehnite and white calcite could be picked out of the crushed stone. It was not long before Albert was taking train rides to Toongabbie, then walking the extra distance to Prospect to personally collect zeolites, prehnite and associated minerals in the quarries. Often his next trips would not be to quarries, but to Sydney’s Geological Museum and the Australian Museum to see what he might be able to receive in exchange for his surplus Prospect specimens. Albert Chapman Photo
Albert Chapman and some of his beloved mineral specimens
(photo courtesy of QANTAS)

The mineral curators of both museums helped Albert not only with specimens and advice, but they also inculcated into the young collector the mineral collecting lore of the times. Accordingly, Albert once crossed Sydney Harbour to call on perhaps the last and the greatest of the Australian 19th century collectors, George Smith. It was unfortunate that Albert called at a bad time, for George Smith was unwell and unable to give his visitor the time he most usually and willingly gave to those interested in the subject. Such a meeting between the leading Australian collectors of two centuries would have been some event to record.

Albert trained as a cabinet maker and became a perfectionist at his craft. He gave as much care and thought to materials and aesthetics in his cabinet work as he gave in the selection of specimens for his collection; he was a true connoisseur of all objects of beauty. I first met Albert Chapman during a visit to Sydney in 1962. Miss Sachs, (of Sach’s Mine, Kingsgate) had given me his name, but no address. Luckily, being “A” Chapman, only a few telephone calls were needed before finding the right Chapman, and a meeting was arranged for the following Saturday. Albert’s residence had nothing to distinguish it from the other semi detached houses in a long line. I felt that once again I was to view a collection of agates and ore samples. When the front door was opened by Albert’s beautiful daughter I could see I was in for a shock; beautiful furniture and paintings could be seen down the hallway. Shown into the drawing room to await Albert’s arrival I was stunned by the sight of a huge English fluorite encrusted with brilliant galena and calcite crystals, which was perched upon the marble mantlepiece. On the floor beneath it was a 30 centimetre, glassy green Prospect prehnite. It was a hot summer’s afternoon and I heard the clink of ice against glass. Miss Chapman had brought me a cold drink elegantly served, and when I turned to receive it my eyes fell on a 30 centimetre high ‘jackstraw’ group of crocoite crystals under a clock glass which was sitting atop a highly polished cedar chest of drawers. What that chest of drawers contained made me literally gasp as each drawer was opened. One contained nothing but English calcite groups, each specimen almost exactly 2 X 3 inches and in a range of colours from colourless to white, yellow, green, red and purple. Another contained only Broken Hill cerussite, each specimen 2 X 3 inches in a range of arrow-heads, sword blades and reticulated groups. As the afternoon, then the evening wore on, Albert produced specimens from cupboards, from under his bed, even from his wife’s linen cupboard from which the linen had been expelled. The whole time Albert kept up a monologue of information on each mineral and its mode of occurrence, whether Australian or foreign.

His knowledge of world-wide mineral localities was unsurpassed. For many years Albert made an annual mineral collecting excursion to Melbourne, Adelaide and Broken Hill. In Melbourne he collected zeolites at Rosebud and other localities, and occasionally exchanged specimens with Dr. Alan Beasley, then Curator of Minerals at the Museum of Victoria. In Adelaide he once valued the entire mineral collection and was unexpectedly rewarded with a magnificent Broken Hill azurite with cerussite. In Broken Hill he collected underground, and traded with such distinguished collectors as the late Arthur (Floss) Campbell, whose collection went to the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Canberra. Back in Sydney, with co-collector the late Rev. Bert Gardner, he once washed every single specimen in the Australian Museum collection. Albert was among the first Australian mineral collectors to make regular visits to overseas mineral shows such as that at Tucson, and his trips emphasised the importance of repatriating good Australian specimens back to Australia at every opportunity.

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From that memorable day when I first saw his collection, it changed in content very considerably over the years. Although finally consisting of only about 2000 specimens, the collection was universally regarded as one of the top 10 in the world. Albert was made a Life Member of the Mineralogical Society of New South Wales and when he felt that age was becoming a handicap, he sold the collection to the New South Wales government for a fraction of its true value to ensure the collection remained in this country. The Australian Museum in Sydney plans to have the collection intact and on permanent display. The last time I saw Albert he was very frail. The display cabinets which had held such a profusion of mineralogical perfection for over 60 years were empty (except for a fist-sized gold specimen rising elegantly out of quartz!). His beautiful wife Doreene looked after him adoringly and selflessly, but it was clear he had not long to live. He passed away on July 20th and will be greatly missed by all those who enjoyed a ‘mineral chat’ with him.

Follow this link to view his collection: Albert Chapman Collection

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