updated 10/23/2006 8:18:31 AM ET 2006-10-23T12:18:31

Trustees of the cash-strapped Academy of Natural Sciences are selling more than 15,000 minerals and gems that haven't been cleaned or displayed for decades in a deal estimated to be worth several million dollars.

Workers began boxing up specimens for an unnamed private dealer after trustees voted Tuesday for the sale, acting academy president Ian Davison told The Philadelphia Inquirer for Sunday's editions.

The city's natural-history museum received permission for the sale from Orphans Court Judge Joseph D. O'Keefe.  The academy must return to court for permission to sell its remaining 7,000-odd pieces — including silver, gold, diamonds and everyday quartz — because William S. Vaux, who donated them 123 years ago, requested that they never be sold.

The academy, which has suffered staff cuts and a string of deficits, will use the proceeds to support its library.

Given that some of the minerals will end up with other museums, some say they are better off being sold and seen than locked behind closed doors.  Yet the move has led to criticism of the world-renowned, 194-year-old institution, which is home to 17 million fossil, plant and animal specimens.

Opponents include Trina Vaux, great-great-niece of William S. Vaux.  "I think the entire collection represents a really important part of Philadelphia's heritage," said Vaux, who lives in Bryn Mawr.  "This is really the cradle of American mineralogy."

But Davison said the items have been shut in a vault for most of the last half-century.  Some specimens are crumbling and will have to be thrown out, he said.

And according to a court petition filed by academy attorneys, there has been no mineral lab or curator since the 1950s, except when a grant was used to hire one from 1976 to 1981.

Some say the proceedings have been handled badly. John S. White, a former curator of minerals and gems at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote in a letter to former academy president D. James Baker that an agent who tried to sell the collection was also involved in appraising it.

Davison said the agent was not involved in the eventual sale, and there was no conflict.

Ironically, news of the sale comes as Philadelphia welcomes 6,000 geologists for their annual convention, being held Sunday through Wednesday.

"To me, it's a very sad day when this kind of thing happens," said Stephen G. Wells, president of the Geological Society of America.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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