Auction Finds

A lesson in Taiwan butterfly specimens

As I approached the large picture-frame case with the butterflies, I sighed when I saw the words “Made in Taiwan.” It seemed like a disappointing let-down to what I had seen on the auction-house website of some beautifully mounted butterflies.

Here in person, the words stung, conjuring in my mind machine-mounted specimens with no human hands involved. But even as I read the inscription, though, I knew that this group of wings looked different. They reminded me of the dead and dried insect and bug specimens I had seen mounted on boards in science museums.

Butterfly-wing specimens from Taiwan, which was known as the Butterfly Kingdom. They were sold at auction.

No, these were not your typical wholesale products; these were special.

There appeared to be about 100 of them, apparently different species, identified in three languages – including English and what I assumed was Taiwanese. They were a spectrum of browns, beiges, yellows and creams.

This was the first time I’d seen butterfly specimens at auction, so I was intrigued. I knew I wouldn’t bid on them; I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. As I stood photographing the set, another auction-goer nearby said that he would. I wasn’t around when the grouping sold, so I’m not sure if he did or what they went for.

My instincts were right about the complexity of this mounting. I found out that for years, Taiwan was known as the Butterfly Kingdom. It is reported to have nearly 400 species of butterflies, 50 of them native to the country. Take a look at these lovely live butterflies here and here.

A view of the 100 or so mounted butterfly wings.

Around the mid-20th century, Taiwan was the major exporter of butterfly-wing specimens and crafts, and families made their living collecting butterflies for sale or by working in factories processing the wings.

Butterfly-wing collages were especially popular from the 1950s to 1975, according to the Panorama magazine website. Most of the butterfly trade was concentrated in the central Taiwan area of Puli, which continues to be well known for its butterflies. One site noted that you can find 350 species in this township, which has a butterfly museum, the Muh Sheng Museum of Entomology.

The collages were made by applying resin-covered wings to a drawing of people or scenes that had been copied from postcards, according to the magazine.

The specimens were identified as "Made in Taiwan."

The butterfly population seems to have dwindled because of too much harvesting, too much new construction and too much environmental damage, according to several sites. Competition from other Southeast Asia companies didn’t help, either. One book talked about depletion of the stock of butterflies all over the world by commercial dealers.

Taiwan’s butterflies apparently can make for very collectible items. Among those collectibles are Starbucks of Taiwan gift cards. The company opened its first coffee shop in the country in 1998 and has been issuing gift cards since 2002 (including an anniversary card for each year to commemorate its opening). Each of the anniversary cards has a butterfly on it, but can only be used in that country.

I even came across a site for collectors of Starbucks gift cards, of which there appear to be many.

A sampling of the butterfly-wing specimens.

 

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2 Comments

  1. I just bought a board with 30 butterflies with the “butterfly specimens made in Taiwan” at a local Goodwill. I almost didn’t buy it because it did look like a biology class prop.

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