According to the FBI’s website, “Not all art thefts are reported. Many art thefts are actually lootings from either institutions or from archaeological sites, sometimes from churches. They don’t even know what’s missing.” The business of stolen art is estimated to generate between $4 billion and $6 billon worldwide annually. Many of these artifacts end up in the United States because of the high demand for art and historic material culture here.
While I sat in the meeting room at Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR) on March 13 during a repatriation ceremony, I imagined that, after 40 years going undetected, artifact thief Michael Corbett had grown comfortable knowing that he had gotten off scot free. At 73, he owned rare, stolen items linked to significant periods in United States history. In his home in Newark, Delaware, Corbett enjoyed his spoils for decades.
A Case of Happenstance
Tips from the public led the FBI Art Crime Team to Corbett’s door. Founded in 2004, due in part to the looting of the The Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003, the team’s role is to work with local police to identify stolen objects and art. Partly due to the nature of the work, tips often help to recover items.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney K.T. Newton of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Jack Archer, special agent of the FBI Art Crime Team, Philadelphia Division, a tip from the public reopened a cold case investigation that resulted in the retrieval of 50 military items and their return to the rightful owners, primarily museums and historical societies.
In 2016, Philadelphia’s FBI Art Crime Team and U.S. Attorney’s Office received a tip that resulted in the arrest of Corbett in Delaware. He had stashed the stolen military items in his home’s small attic crawlspace and in a safe in the basement. Taking into consideration Corbett’s health and a plea deal that included assisting in recovering more items, he was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Mark Kearney to a single day in federal prison and three years of house arrest. Now that the thief had been caught and the stolen goods recovered, the FBI Art Crime Team and the Attorney’s Office faced the arduous task of finding who legally owned what.
Persistence and Paperwork
Many historical societies and museums in Central Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Connecticut had experienced unsolved robberies from their collections in the 1970s. Each organization lost a piece or pieces of history, losses that Jacqueline Maquire, the special agent in charge of Philadelphia’s FBI Division, described at the MoAR event as “artifacts that help write our national story. Their long absence from public view, secreted away so that no one had seen or heard about them was a loss for both society and our historical records,” she explained. “When items from our past are stolen the real victim is our future.”
Representatives from 16 historical societies and museums attended the ceremony to reclaim stolen items. All of the institutions shared unique stories about their items. For example, The U.S. Army War College Museum in Carlisle, Pennsylvania lost a Luger pistol and a Walther PPK presentation pistol belonging to General Omar Bradley who served as a field commander during D-Day in 1944. According to one of the museum’s representatives, “On May 10, 1979, two brothers walked into an exhibit and each placed a gun in inside their waistbands and walked out.”
In the 1970s, the Delaware County Historical Society was located at the Pennsylvania Military College Museum at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. Acting Director Paul Hewes explained that a break in during that period resulted in the pilfering of numerous items, including a Civil War-era bullet pouch and knife, a bugle stamped “Klemm & Bro Philad,” a 1850s officer’s sword stamped “RGB” on the handle with a sheath stamped “Horstmann & Sons Makers, Philadelphia,” numerous pistols, and a rifle.
Curator Alex McKenzie of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site in Springfield, Massachusetts revealed the long history of a single-shot percussion M1842 pistol that was the last in a series of pistols commissioned for demonstration purposes. It was stolen in 1971.
Some, like the Belchertown Historical Association, which oversees The Stone House Museum in Belchertown, Massachusetts, could only draw conclusions based on newly discovered evidence. Corbett had signed its visitor log book two months prior to the theft of a 1758 engraved powder horn carried by Justus Dwight in the French and Indian War.
Most of the organization’s representatives admitted that, prior to receiving a call from the FBI Art Crime Team, they did not know that artifacts had been lost. Only after internal research did they realize that something was missing, an unfortunate result of inadequate record keeping 50 years ago. Yet, as each representative signed paperwork, the story of how the authorities caught Corbett and returned the items to them was the main topic of discussion.
As the ceremony wrapped up Special Agent Archer reminded the crowd that many items are still missing from a number of the museums and historical societies whose representatives were in attendance. Assistant U.S. Attorney Newton, who opened the repatriation ceremony, ended the day by encouraging the public to contact her office with tips that may lead them to the recovery of other items. Until then, the returned artifacts will be put back on display for generations to enjoy, albeit with the added story of how they made their way back home.