Category Archives: Repatriation and Acquisition News

Charles Darwin letter returned to the Smithsonian



The Smithsonian recently received restitution of a long lost letter from Charles Darwin missing from the museum archives since the 1970’s. It is believed that the letter was stolen by an intern working at the museum.

The FBI was tipped off that the letter was quite near Washington, D.C.  The FBI was unable to prosecute the dealer as the statue of limitations had passed, but the letter was proven to be authentic and returned to the Smithsonian who originally owned the letter.

We don’t often hear of items being returned to a U.S. Museum, so this is quite noteworthy in the world of art crime.  The letter was from Darwin to thank geologist, Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, for sending him geology research of the what would  later become Yellowstone National Park. Hayden spent many years between the 1850’s to the 1870’s exploring the American West which resulted in the discovery of many artifacts that remain in the Smithsonian today.

The FBI maintains a database online that lists stolen art and historical artifacts.  Artifacts currently listed include such items as fine arts, decorative arts, antiquities, Asian art, Islamic art, Native American art, ethnographic objects, archaeological material, textiles, books and manuscripts, clocks and watches, coins, stamps, musical instruments, and scientific instruments.

New Zealand won repatriation of Maori remains from Smithsonian Museum

New Zealand Museum Te Papa Tongarewa has lobbied and won the repatriation of over 54 mummified bodies including 4 Maori heads from the Smithsonian Museum.  

The mummified bodies were traded, collected and sold dating back to the 1800’s.  In total, New Zealand has repatriated over 60 bodies and Maori heads from private and public collections in United States and UK.

In the Maori culture, the mummified heads were the most important part of the body, many being chiefs and warriors.  As western explorers began expeditions in the country, the Maori heads became increasingly sought after.

New Zealand thanked the Smithsonian for their respect and return of the bodies.  This is the second largest effort to repatriate the Moari heads and bodies back to their homeland since 1990.



500 Year-Old Shipwreck “Esmeralda” found

Portuguese Explorer Vasco da Gama’s ship “Esmeralda” has been found along with a treasure of over 2800 artifacts in the remote island in the Sultanate of Oman. Oman’s Ministry of Heritage & Culture (MHC), in cooperation with Blue Water Recoveries Ltd (BWR) of the UK, announced the discovery and archeological excavation.

“There’s coins, there’s armaments, there’s munitions, there’s personal objects, there’s organic objects. And we’re bringing in archaeologists and other experts to study the entire collection, so it will ultimately be in a museum and displayed for the public in a way where you’re really spelling out the entire history.” David Mearns, National Geographic grantee and shipwreck hunter, National Geographic 

The project has been jointly managed by the MHC and David L. Mearns of BWR and has been conducted in strict compliance with the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage of 2001.

vasco_shipwreck (1)

About Oman’s Ministry of Heritage & Culture

The MHC is the official government body responsible for the protection of Oman’s underwater cultural heritage and their management of this project represents the first government-led archaeological excavation of an historic wreck-site in Omani waters. Within the MHC an underwater archaeology programme has been recently established to begin the process of cataloguing and investigating sites of underwater cultural heritage throughout the territorial waters of Oman. Following conservation and analysis, the recovered artefacts will be preserved in a single coherent collection owned by the MHC for ultimate display in Museums.

About BWR / David L. Mearns

David L. Mearns is one of the world’s most experienced and successful shipwreck hunters and has led the research and discovery of 24 major shipwrecks around the world. He is best known for locating the wrecks of HMS Hood in 2001, the British bulk carrier Derbyshire in 1994, and the cargo ship Lucona sunk by a time bomb as part of an Austrian insurance fraud scheme. He was awarded an Honorary Order of Australia Medal for locating the wrecks of HMAS Sydney in 2008 and AHS Centaur in 2009. In 2015 he was a member of Paul Allen’s team that successfully located the wreck of the Japanese super battleship MUSASHI and recovered the bell of HMS Hood on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defence.

Blue Water Recoveries, Coinweek

It will be interesting to see where these artifacts finally find a home. Will it be the source country of the artifact? Does the source country still exist? Will the artifacts go to a museum in the country it was found in?  There are so many ways to argue where the actual artifacts will eventually be displayed.

For more information on the wreckage click here for the full article and links to the excavation on the National Geographic website.

Woman in Gold (2015)

The film Woman in Gold (2015) starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Bruhl tells the story of Maria Altmann (Mirren) a Jewish refugee who seeks to recover her family’s possessions that were taken during the WWII by the Nazi’s.  The main artifact in question is a famous Klimt painting – Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Altmann’s Aunt, which now resides in a museum in Austria.

Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I (1907)

This is a wonderful film for anyone who is interested in restitution and the wide-spread dissemination of artwork seized by the Nazi’s during the War and where they reside today.