Prepared Microscope Slides You Won’t Find on eBay. A Whimsy
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
In recent years, there have been a large number of fake specimens of a variety of types coming out of a number of countries but, especially, China. Some of these are very crude, such as, a modern dragonfly embedded in a slab of plastic, yellowed resin with the claim, implicit or explicit, that this is a genuine fossil dragonfly which was trapped in amber and now is presented to you in the form of a polished slab for only a few dollars. It is such an obvious fake that it is sadly amusing, but despite the phony provenance, some of these specimens are, nonetheless, attractive. However, there are other fakes that are of such high quality and done with such skill that sometimes even experts are deceived. Such quality fakes also tend to come with a high price and so one should be quite cautious when considering the risk involved in buying high-priced fossils, etc. from China, et. al. However, even with repeated warning, the human susceptibility to scams seems virtually unbounded. So, you might look at an auction ad rather critically when it is claimed to be “an exceedingly rare and astonishing specimen. Clearly, of museum quality. A bargain at $750, but now available for only $625. Hurry, at this price they will go quickly. Only 125 specimens left.” “Rare” minerals are also fabricated these days and are the result of high-tech techniques and interesting chemical interactions.
However you might well ask, why would anybody fake a microscope slide? Well, I have seen Victorian slide papers on sale on eBay. Of course, we know that a microscopist would never stoop to creating fake slides, unless, perhaps, some significant amount of money might be gleaned. But, what if you were able to produce 25 slides and sell them for $100 each–not a bad take! However, what sort of thing might tempt a collector to lay out $100 for a single slide? Well, how about a 3,000 year old sample of cloth from the wrap of an Egyptian mummy? Maybe genuine, maybe fabricated. Most collectors are not going to spend the money required to have it authenticated. There are various chemical aging techniques that can produce results quite satisfactory to the non-experts, so as always, Caveat emptor! Our capacity to deceive ourselves is virtually endless.
Now, suppose you find an offer of a slide with a tiny sample of cloth from the Shroud of Turin. Can you pass that up? A number of samples have been taken for research purposes so, it’s not inconceivable that one might turn up for sale for a mere $7,500, for after all, this is of enormous historical and religious significance. Furthermore, it is utterly unique with only 29 other such samples available. Wow, I’m a spoilsport, but I seriously doubt that any samples made their way out to a source who could make them commercially available. But, what if? What if in this case it just happened to happen–why then you would be in possession of an extremely valuable object which, if you could sell it for its mythic and imaginary worth might allow you to retire comfortably.
O.K., so you bought the slide–now, what about the one of the sperm of a velociraptor? When this one is authenticated, you can sell it and not, only retire, but live in splendid luxury for the rest of your life!
Or you could buy some lottery tickets.
And, you might want to add another stunner to your unique collection– a cross section of skin from an alien found, scraped off a rock in Area 51 near Roswell, New Mexico where the UFOs either landed or crashed. The skin sample was carefully preserved and the green lizard-like color has been retained. Again, a priceless object–so, sell your house, your car, your diamonds, your pets and your teenagers and buy this otherworldly treasure–it is indisputably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And for those nasty cynics among you, I ask: If this isn’t genuine, how could it be advertised for sale on the Internet?
Of similar stunning distinctness is a slide with a fragment of etched silicon from a meteorite with a message inscribed on it. The message when transliterated reads:
which decoded and translated roughly reads:
Hi, there sexy Earthlings.
All right I admit that you might not find these last 3 items on eBay or anywhere on the Internet; however, if ads for such items were to appear, I strongly believe that they would find bidders. As I expressed in my Book of Howey’s Lists in thesis #137: “The human capacity for gullibility is infinite.” Just consider who became president of the United States in 2016!
Some people are driven to possess things which are unique, to have the only example of a particular kind of thing and they see this as an expression of their power, status, wealth, and influence; in other words, as a boost to the ego. In extreme cases, the buyer may receive the item, open it, glance at it, stick it in a cabinet and then ignore it for years. The point for such individuals is not to explore, investigate, observe, or contemplate the object, but simply to possess it. There is another set of individuals who buy to display and impress other enthusiasts but, at least with some of them, they research the specimens so that they can be seen as repositories of fascinatingly obscure knowledge about their specimens. Now, you may be beginning to think that I am misanthropic but, while I do own up to a preference for cats, dogs, and aardvarks, I nonetheless wish the human species well and could give an even more enthusiastic endorsement, if we could overcome war, our bitter hatreds of those who are different from ourselves, our greed, and our egotistical stupidity. Then I think we might be on the way to evolving into a better species.
But, back to the subjects at hand–gullibility, fakery, and the passion for possessing the unique (or, at least, the very rare). I have always been attracted to crystals whether they be micro-crystals, micro mounts, or large museum specimens.
This is a particularly rich territory for fakery. You want a green, drusy quartz–no, problem–we just take a nice piece of quartz and subject it to our magical laboratory techniques–and, voila!, a virtually splendid specimen. So, what’s the problem? From my point of view, not too much. I bought such a specimen and I knew that it was fabricated both in terms of “drusiness” and color and paid only a modest amount, so everybody’s happy. I have a visually lovely specimen and the Chinese dealer has some money and believes that he has cleverly conned another fat-eyed American fat cat.
There is a laboratory in Poland that makes offerings on eBay and is completely straightforward about letting you know that these items are produced in a laboratory. Most of the specimens are quite small, but splendid–lovely little crystal clusters with bright colors and other specimens of just a single crystal. To me, these are quite worth having, the prices are reasonable, and you know what your are getting.
Perhaps the most popular of the “manufactured” crystals these a days are those of bismuth which can display a dazzling array of colors and stacks of geometric forms that are reminiscent of Escher. As to price, for good specimens, they range from modest to very expensive.
How we attach value to things is a complicated and mysterious process. I have a small metal cube with another inside it that slides in and out. It is so-well crafted that it still delights me. I found it 50 years ago in a small antique shop in Soho, London. As I remember, it cost me only about 3 pounds.
Now, I am 80 and my wife and I are in the process of moving to a much smaller house and having to give up many, many things we have accumulated over the last 46 years at the old house. Many of those things have a higher monetary value than the 3 pounds of my silly brass cube, but I have a peculiar fondness for it which is extremely difficult to articulate beyond saying that it elicits in me a kind of wonder that some 19th Century machinist crafted such a fine and fascinating piece. I suppose it could be used as a pill box or as a place to keep a stash of small diamonds, but I have never kept anything in it. I like it for its own sake.
How do you judge the value of a particular for you? My general rule is that I tend to be quite conservative on individual slides and rarely bid more than a few dollars–unless the slide is quite exceptional in terms of my own specific interests and with some assurance that the specimen is still in excellent condition.
For some years, I have been watching for slides of the spicules of the “glass rope” sponge (Hyalonema) and they are almost always patterned arrangements. Because I have a special interest in this groups of sponges and was doing research on them and writing about them, I was especially interested in having a 19th Century arrangement of their spicules. Over and over again, I would be outbid, even though I exceeded my usual spending limits. Were I a billionaire or even a multi-millionaire, I suppose I could have bid extravagantly and won one of the slides. But, I’m not and I didn’t, but eventually a slide came along which was a nice arrangement of spicules but, over time, some of the spicules had migrated in the mounting medium, thus disrupting the intended arrangement. However, for my purposes this was insignificant, since I was primarily interest in documenting and photographing the individual spicules or small groups thereof. So, this particular slide which I was able to win at a reasonable price was quite acceptable and I hope to write another eccentric article devoted to it.
One seller typically offers individual thin-section mineral slides for $45, $65, and $95 with a few groups of 10 slides for $200 or $250. To specialist collectors such slides are evidently worth the price, but these are not on my to-purchase list. The same seller offers similar prices for diatom slides and, again, not being a specialist, these do not make my list either. However, slide arrangements of diatoms and/or butterfly scales can be splendid, require a great deal of precise, skillful work, and if in good condition, may be worth making an exception for, especially since these are not the sorts of slides that we ourselves are likely to be able to make.
There are, however, many types of specimens which you can mount and embellish to create an attractive and interesting slide. I tried this out several years ago and made slides using a variety of specimens and paper designs which I printed. If you’re interested, you can find out more about producing what I call Neo-Victorian slides in the articles here.
If you happen to be interested in any of them you can contact me and we can negotiate a price, but hurry, remember I’m 80 years old!
Clearly some of the more elaborate slides from the 19th Century are expensive and within the price range of a relatively few well-to-do collectors. Such slides can indeed be miniature works of art, but fortunately have not yet created an economic cult-following such as that which plagues painting and sculpture where an individual work can sell for millions of dollars, yet I would be willing to bet that more hours of skillful work went into many such slide arrangements than went into some paintings by Jackson Pollack or Piet Mondrian.
Another type of slide which I find seductive are those which have exotic material on them that I could never be in a position to collect myself. I have here in mind such things as elephant hair, a cross-section from the hoof of a giraffe, eggs of a Sunset Moth from Madagascar, a cross-section of a wild boar tusk, a cross-section of the tooth of a particular wildly boring academic colleague, hair from a Tibetan yak, eggs from a lungfish, a cross-section of the toxic spur from a male platypus, algae from the growths on the back of an alligator, crumbs from the Cookie Monster, embryo of a hyena, the stinging cells of a sea wasp, the stinging cells of a disgruntled spouse, sperm from a sperm whale, crystallized venom of a sea snake, and the list goes on and on and on. Unfortunately, some times “exotic” slides turn out to be quite disappointing but, at other times, one can find specimens that are brilliant and exciting.
Again, a word of caution. Suppose you buy a slide of giraffe hair, how do you know that it’s not common horse hair? So many human transactions are ostensibly based on trust and almost daily, we are reminded of how untrustworthy many human beings are. “But, surely, not microscopists,” you might object. Yes, afraid so, there are some “bad apples” everywhere.
Oh and by the way, for those of you bidding on the velociraptor sperm slide, I have a slide of a cross section of a unicorn horn which I would be willing to part with at a modest price.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Mrs. Malaprop's further adventures and opinions can be found in the Library.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the December 2018 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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