March 1999 Meeting of the Pre-Columbian Society

Saturday March 13, 1999 at the University Museum.

Robert Wittman and Jay Heine, FBI, and Steve Epstein, University Museum, "US vs Art Thieves: looting and theft of art objects"

Bob Wittman told the fascinating story of his involvement as an FBI agent in the Philadelphia office with recovery of stolen and looted art objects, especially two cases directly related to the University Museum.  The first was the recovery of the gold Moche backflap which had been looted from the Sipan site in Peru, and was recovered at the Adams Mark Hotel in Philadelphia when the thieves tried to sell it to Mr. Wittman. The backflap was briefly exhibited at the University Museum last summer before returning permanently to Peru.  The second was the Chinese crystal globe which had been stolen from the University Museum.  It was recovered in a rowhouse in Trenton from a woman who had been using it as a "crystal ball", but had had to keep it covered: sunlight focused by the globe had started fires in her living room.  It is now back in the Chinese Rotunda at the University Museum.

Mr. Wittman's associate, Jay Heine, described the recent recovery of a flag from an African-American Civil War regiment that had been stolen from the army.  The holders of the flag were in Kansas City, but the attempted sale to the FBI occurred at the Philadelphia airport.

Steve Epstein introduced the speakers, and talked about the University Museum's policies for dealing with unprovenienced archeological objects: it doesn't.  Before acquiring an object now, the University Museum requires positive proof of its origins.  However, this does not free the Museum from difficult related questions, such as how to deal with requests for return of objects that were in the Museum's collections long before it adopted this policy in the 1970's.

Bob Wittman noted the importance publicity plays in deterring art theft.  In the case of the Moche backflap, one of those involved was a Panamanian embassy official in New York.  He has not been arrested, but is under indictment, and cannot leave Panama without being arrested.  His situation is certain to make diplomatic officials pause.  He especially emphasized the importance of tips from the public - people like ourselves must act as the eyes and ears for the FBI in order to help them to return stolen and looted objects to their rightful owners.  Mr. Wittman's phone number is 215 418-4141.

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