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Jean  Gigot d'Orcy
(1737-1793)

Jean Baptiste François Gigot d'Orcy was born in Sens, Yonne, France, on January 8, 1737, the son of Jeanne Dantan Satin and Pierre-Symphorien Gigot, at the time directeur des aides (wine tax collector) de Sens.

Gigot d'Orcy became a wealthy patron of natural history, especially entomology and mineralogy, subjects which had interested him since his youth. His knowledge of minerals was probably instrumental in gaining a government appointment as Inspector of Mines. He later served as Receiver General of Finances for Châlons from 1773 until the Revolution.

Gigot d'Orcy was "a man of great opulence." His wealth permitted him to build lavish and expensive collections of insects and minerals, and to support the publication of a major eight-volume work on butterflies (1779-1793). The text for the first three volumes was written under his direction by J.-L. F. Engramelle (1734-1814), an Augustinian monk; in 1784 Engramelle abandoned the work and was replaced by A. Carangeot (1742-1806). The plates in the first volume were prepared by a Strasbourg artist named J.-J. Ernst (?-1779). Most of the illustrations in the following volumes, are the work of Maria Eleonora Hochecker (1761-1834). Gigot d'Orcy also undertook the publication of a general natural history of insects. Louis J.-M. Daubenton introduced him to the naturalist and physician Guillaume-Antoine Olivier (1756-1814), who was charged with writing the work and traveling to examine specimens for the preparation of illustrations. The eight-volume work did not see completion, however, until 15 years after Gigot d'Orcy's death.

A. N. Dezallier d'Argenville (1780) wrote of him thus:

Mr. Gigot d'Orcy, Receiver General of Finance, possesses a very fine Cabinet of Natural History, where there is a series of many insects and butterflies, many of them from Europe, China and India: a choice of the rarest birds, artistically grouped on feigned shrubs in glass cages: and beautiful suites of shells, stony corals, minerals, crystallizations and fossils: some quadrupeds, fish, crustaceans, reptiles etc. : All arranged in the most elegant order.

Gigot d'Orcy rose to the position of Receiver General of Finance of Châlons-en-Champagne in 1773, and had an interest in several mining companies, in some arms factories and the tobacco factory in Toulouse. He devoted himself since childhood to natural history and formed various collections of insects. He installed his superb natural history collections in the hotel of banker Jean Cottin (1709-1781) at 11 (today 26) Place Vendôme, which he bought in 1782 for 180,000 livres.

Gigot d'Orcy began collecting minerals seriously around 1753, at the age of 16, and over the succeeding 40 years built up quite a large collection of about 4,000 specimens. He traveled frequently to obtain specimens, many of them purchased at considerable expense, and he maintained an extensive correspondence with other mineral collectors and mineralogists of his day. He owned a number of mining properties, and thus had access to good specimens directly from the source. He also built a substantial scientific library.

Gigot d'Orcy was acquainted with the Paris community of mineralogists and collectors, and his collection was well known. Around 1782 he was approached, probably by Romé de l'lsle, regarding the project initiated by Fabien Gautier d'Agoty to publish 100 color plates of fine mineral specimens, in installments of ten at a time, with accompanying descriptive text supplied by Romé de l'lsle. Most of the specimens pictured in the first 30 plates had been from Romé de l'lsle's own collection, but he was making an effort now to draw on other local collections as well, and wished to illustrate some of Gigot d'Orcy's specimens.

Being the enthusiast and patron of natural history publishing that he was, Gigot d'Orcy could hardly refuse. Over the next few years, 15 specimens from his collection appeared as plates in the series:

Plate XXXIX. Quartz crystals of a carnelian-red color, from Geyer, Saxony.
Plate XLIII. Blue fluorite with calcite from Derbyshire, England.
Plate L. Cuprite crystals with native copper and malachite (no locality given).
Plate LI. Purple apatite with quartz from [Ehrenfriedersdorf?] Saxony.
Plate LII. Stilbite from Iceland.
Plate LIV. Topaz with quartz from Schneckenstein, Saxony.
Plate LV. Harmotome from St. Andreasberg, Saxony.
Plate LVII. Emerald crystals in matrix from Colombia.
Plate LX. Iridescent hematite from the St. Philip mine, Bannat of Temeswar, Hungary [now Romania].
Plate LXII. Barite [?] from Freiberg, Saxony.
Plate LXIII. Azurite from the Bannat of Temeswar, Hungary [now Romania].
Plate LXVI. Prehnite from the Cape of Good Hope.
Plate LXVII. Heulandite from the Faeroe Islands.
Plate LXVIII. Torbernite from Johanngeorgenstadt, Saxony.
Plate LXX. Chalcopyrite from Siegen, Germany

These are generally quite large, aesthetic specimens which would grace any 20th-century collection; judging by their high overall quality, the Gigot d'Orcy collection, at its peak, must have ranked among the finest in Paris.

Gigot d'Orcy's brother, François Symphorien Gigot de Bois Bernier, was executed under the guillotine in 1794 (a death often erroneously reported for Gigot d'Orcy himself), but Gigot d'Orcy died in his own bed on June 10, 1793, leaving no offspring (his brothers and wife were his heirs; his only son, Bernard Gigot d'Orcy, had died at the age of 22 on March 22, 1789). His widow proposed the sale of his natural history cabinet and library to the French government, for the Museum of Natural History. The Temporary Commission for the Arts approved the acquisition, and the purchase was completed in 1794. However, for some reason, the minerals were not included. Perhaps his thousands of rare insect specimens, of relevance to the important publications he sponsored, were of most interest to the government assessors.

The family retained possession of the complete mineral collection and a miscellany of shells and other objects for some years following the Revolution. These materials were said to comprise two-thirds of Gigot d'Orcy's total original holdings, so it is clear that his mineral specimens had outnumbered his insects. In 1804 the heirs at last decided to put the remaining part of the collection up for sale. They engaged the auction house of Mr. Rameau in Victory Square, and opened the collection to public view at no. 11 Place Vendôme every Monday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; a Mr. Carette was the custodian in charge, and he gave tours to interested parties.

The plan was to advertise the collection via an abbreviated published catalog, and hope that buyers would come forward. The family was staunch in its belief that the mineral collection should not be broken up but should be preserved intact for the benefit of science. However, if no one came forward with an acceptable offer, the collection was scheduled to be auctioned off in February of 1805.

It was at this time that the collection came to the notice of Col. George Gibbs III (1776-1833), a wealthy young American who had been enjoying some years of "cultivated leisure" in Paris, and had studied mineralogy at the Paris School of Mines. He was interested in buying specimens; during that same time period Gibbs had purchased the large collection of Count Gregorii Razumovsky (1759-1837) in Lausanne, while studying mineralogy there under Heinrich Struve (1772-1851). In Paris he had been building his collection with the help of François P. N. Gillet de Laumont (1747-1834), François Dubuisson (1763-1836), and the exiled Count Jacques Louis de Bournon (1751-1825) in London.

Negotiations with the family were successfully completed, and in late 1804 or early 1805 Gibbs took possession of the entire Gigot d'Orcy collection and its meticulous catalog in return for an unknown (but no doubt substantial) sum.

In 1805 Gibbs returned to America with two of the finest European mineral collections ever assembled. The catalog had been compiled by Arnould Carangeot (1742-1806), a well-known crystallographer and former assistant to Romé de l'lsle. Following Gigot d'Orcy's death it had been edited and cross-checked with the actual specimens by a prominent Parisian mineral dealer named Gaillard and an unknown mineralogist. The arrival of the Gigot d'Orcy and Razumovsky specimens in America excited great interest among New England mineralogists and their students who were periodically allowed access. A notice in the Medical Repository on "Gibbs's grand collection of minerals" had this to say:

The collection of Mr. D'Orcy is particularly rich in the productions of the French mines: such as the phosphates, carbonates and molybdates of lead; the iron ores of Bangory, Framont, and the Isle of Elba; the silver of St. Maria and d'Allemont; the mercury of Deuxponts; a great variety of marbles, calcedonies and agates, quartz, calcareous, and other spars from France and different parts of Europe.

Gibbs ultimately sold his entire collection to Yale College in 1825. With the establishment in 1866 of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Gigot d'Orcy's mineral collection became part of the museum's holdings. The original handwritten catalog is still preserved there. And, although many of the Gigot d'Orcy specimens have since lost their pedigree, as of the time of this writing about 200 of his specimens have been identified based on the original specimen labels and the corresponding entries in the catalog. In addition, a few that have lost their 18th century labels have recently been recognized by comparison with Gautier d'Agoty plates supplied by the Mineralogical Record Library. Finally, another “orphaned” Gigot d'Orcy specimen was identified recently, thanks to its illustration in F. L. Swebach Desfontaines (?-?1792) extensive mineral sketch books preserved in the Library of the Natural History Museum in London.

Wendell E. Wilson and Stefan Nicolescu (2015) ________________________________________

Reference:
GAUTHIER D'AGOTY, F. (1781) Histoire Naturelle Règne Minéral. Paris.
WILSON, W. E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting, 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 57-61.
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The Mineralogical Record - Jean  Gigot d'Orcy A collector chasing butterflies for his collection, as illustrated by J. J. Ernst in Papillons d’Europe ("Butterflies of Europe")(1779).
The Mineralogical Record - Jean  Gigot d'Orcy Gigot d'Orcy's personal bookplate, showing the Gigot coat of arms.
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