Category Archives: The Short: Museum News Today

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.



Even in the US Looting is a Problem

A looter/vandal attempted to cut and chisel this 2,000 year old Basketmaker petroglyph out of the cliff in early 2016.
A looter/vandal attempted to cut and chisel this 2,000 year old Basketmaker petroglyph out of the cliff in early 2016.

Even in the US looting occurs.  According to the Durango Herald a surge of looting in San Juan County, Southeastern Utah, has been occurring on Native American sites.  Recently, three remote sites were dug up by pot hunters,  vandalism of a burial alcove was discovered, a prehistoric wall was torn down at Monarch Cave and a wall at Double Stack ruin was also destroyed.

These sites are sacred to the Native Americans and are protected by numerous federal and state laws, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Archaeological Resources Protection Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Antiquities Act and the Utah State Antiquities Act. Violations of the laws include theft or intentional damage of cliff dwellings, shrines, pottery, stone tools, rock-art panels, burials and historic structures.

The non-profit organization Friends of Cedar Mesa along with the Bureau of Land Management are fighting to stop such crimes and prosecute looters. The Friends of Cedar Mesa is offering a $2500 award for any information that leads to convictions.

Art Crime: FBI suspects mobster in the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist




Sounds like a movie:  Alleged mobster Robert Gentile suspected in connection with one of the biggest heist in museum history of over 12 paintings including works by Rembrandt, Degas, Vermeer and Manet from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum inBoston, MA in 1990.

The value of the artwork is over $500 million dollars and has been on the top of the FBI art crime unit list for years.  The FBI has listed a $5 million dollar reward for the return of the artwork.

This is the third time the FBI has raided Gentile’s home.  At this time, the FBI has only found a stash of guns.  It has not been disclosed yet what information, if any, the FBI recovered from the raid.

Warhol Soup Can prints stolen




Seven of the Ten prints of Warhol’s “Soup Can” prints were stolen from the Springfield Art Museum a couple of weeks ago. Where they will ultimately end up is of great importance to the FBI, which is offering a $25,000 award for the return of the prints.

Unfortunately, the prints can be sold on the black market for much more and end up in a private collection, never to be seen again.  There are only 50 complete sets of 10 still in existance today that are in pristine condition.

Huge Archeological Discovery made today in Wiltshire England



Huge archeological discovery was made today in Wiltshire England consisting of a grand Roman villa dated AD 175-220.  This is one of Britain’s most important discoveries in current years.

The site was found after a couple living on the property decided to convert an old barn into a children’s playroom. Electricians cabling underground hit upon a set of mosaic tiles which prompted the excavation.  After much digging, the site appears to be a grand villla from a  Roman family of huge wealth.

“The Irwins’ house, created out of two labourers’ cottages, was built in the centre of the old villa and rests on a large slab of Purbeck marble, which is probably of Roman origin. According to the experts, the discovery is of “national significance.

The rest of the site has not been touched since the house collapsed more than 1,400 years ago, and it is unquestionably of enormous importance,” said Dr David Roberts, an Historic England archaeologist.” (Barn Conversion leads to amazing find of a palatial Roman Villa, The

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.

400 Year-Old Caravaggio painting found in leaky attic


Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-99)
Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-99)

The art world is buzzing about the 400 year-old painting by Caravaggio found in the attic of French homeowners in Toulouse when fixing a leaky roof. Named “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” the painting bears a striking resemblance to other Caravaggio paintings such as “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” and “David with the Head of  Goliath.”

The painting is said to have been painted between 1598 and 1599 and has been being studied for the last two years to confirm its authenticity. France has officially put an export ban on the painting and has listed the painting at a value of $136 million.