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FBI Reopens 20 Year-Old Investigation of Stolen Peabody Institute Artifacts

COURTESY OF RYAN WHEELER

This spatulate celt, worth $16,000, was returned to the Peabody Institute in March 2018 after it had been stolen more than two decades ago.

Recently, stolen artifacts have been returned to the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology after being missing for decades.

One, a spatulate celt worth $16,000 that was originally from the Etowah Indian Mounds in Georgia, was returned in January 2018 after being stolen at some point in the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s, according to Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

Wheeler has been in contact with the Andover Police Department and the The Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) regarding the celt and a number of other artifacts in their investigation of the 20 year-old robbery.

Other artifacts that have been returned to the Peabody include a shell disk depicting two woodpeckers, a citico style shell gorget with rattlesnake engravings, various arrowheads, stone tools, and other chipped stone artifacts. The F.B.I. is currently working on retrieving another item that has been identified as missing.

The celt was found after Thomas Rachels, who lives in Cordele, Ga., had requested information from Wheeler about the stone spatulate celt that he owned. Rachels knew that it had formerly been held by the Peabody, but Wheeler noticed that the museum had no record of the item being deaccessioned or formally removed.

Wheeler then contacted the F.B.I. through the Andover Police Department, which concluded that Rachels was not connected to the theft. The F.B.I. was able to retrieve the celt and was also able to recover another object through names provided by Rachels.

“We explained [to Rachels] that we believed it was another one of these things that had been stolen. He agreed to return it to us, which he did, several month or six weeks after we first were talking to him,” said Wheeler.

“One of the best things that happened was he gave us some names. He gave us the name of the person that he had purchased it from, and we turned that name over to the F.B.I., who we had contacted through the Andover Police Department,” Wheeler continued.

Through those names, the F.B.I. was able to track down more stolen artifacts.

“[The F.B.I.] wound up returning another piece to us in November…which is from another site called Little Egypt or Carter’s Quarter…It’s a big engraved shell disc, made out of a big marine snail.”

The return of these pieces echo an artifact theft roughly thirty years ago. In 1986, a man named George McLaughlin travelled across New England, stealing from six museums including the Peabody before being arrested by the F.B.I. McLaughlin pretended to work for the Boy Scouts, and after asking to see the archives, would fill his briefcase up with artifacts and then walk out to his car, where he would unload his loot.

When artifacts were recovered from McLaughlin’s home, curators and museum staff found difficulty in returning them all to their rightful owners, as he had removed the catalog numbers from items, making it particularly difficult to identify similar-looking artifacts.

“We still have drawers of things from that, that theft. Thousands of things [were returned]. And we’re not sure if we really even got back all the right things, or if he’d sold some things,” said Wheeler.

Another theft was discovered in 1992 when James Bradley, former Director of the Peabody Institute, discovered that a shell woodpecker gorget that was supposed to be part of the Peabody’s collection was being sold by a third party. Bradley, like Wheeler, worked with the Andover police department and the F.B.I. in order to get the shell gorget back, which depicted two woodpeckers and would go on to become a “kind of logo” for the museum, according to the Boston Sunday Globe and Wheeler.

Wheeler also noted how many potential thieves of the Peabody Institute had some expertise in the area, as only the highest quality objects were taken, as opposed to the highest volume of items. He used the example of two clay pots that were virtually the same except for handles on one that raised the value of one even a little bit. Wheeler also explained how materials like a museum catalogue or collector’s book could have been used to pinpoint the most valuable artifacts.

“[One of the pots was] a tiny bit more interesting because it’s got those little handles… It suggests that the person was not just randomly taking vast quantities of arrowheads and things like that. They were were discerning, you know… They always took the one that was more complete. Better in terms of virtuosity,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler hopes that the items that are still at large will be returned in the coming months.