$450,000 Axe Returned to Peabody Institute of Archaeology after F.B.I. Investigation

A monolithic axe worth over 450,000 dollars was returned to the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology in June after being missing for almost three decades, according to Marla Taylor, Curator of Collections at the Peabody. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I) Art Crimes unit in Boston was involved in the investigation, and the axe is the third artifact to have been returned. The artifact was stolen from the Peabody sometime between 1976 and 1990. One possible thief is George McLaughlin, who stole several artifacts from historical museums around New England, including the Peabody, in 1986 by posing as a Boy Scout photographer, according to the Eagle-Tribune.

According to Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody, returning the artifact was a long process involving the F.B.I, Andover, and the owner of the axe, John Morgan. Morgan had purchased the axe from an artifact dealer, neither party knowing that it had been stolen. Once the F.B.I and the Peabody got in contact with Morgan, they were able to negotiate the axe’s return.

“[Getting back the] axe was a little more complicated. [The F.B.I.] tracked it down, they told us who had it, and we maintained contact with the F.B.I., but we really went through a process of negotiating the return of the axe with the person who had bought it, the collector, as well as the dealer that he had bought it from. There was a three way agreement between the school, Mr. Morgan, who is the person that had the axe, and then the person that he had bought it from. [Morgan] had paid a lot of money for it,” said Wheeler.

According to Taylor, the Peabody will only release drawings of the axe because the descending tribal communities asked them not to show any pictures or display the axe to the public. Additionally, the axe is classified as an unassociated funerary object, which the Peabody has the policy of not displaying under the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (Nagpra).

“[The axe is] not something where we are going to pull it out for a class. It’s not something we’re going to show on a tour. It falls into a category that has a legal definition of an unassociated funerary object. That means that it was found in a presence of a grave but there’s no particular person that it is associated it with. For legal reasons that follow under a law called the Native American Grave Protection Repatriation Act…we won’t show objects that fall into that funerary object category,” said Taylor.

Amara Neal ’22, who does work duty in the Peabody, said that she feels the uniqueness of the artifact enriches the Peabody’s collections.

“[The axe is] definitely beneficial to the Peabody’s collection, because each collection that they have from different locations tells a story. Since this sounds like such a big deal, and usually they don’t find weapons other than like arrows or like knives that are very archaic, this will probably be like a big breakthrough for one of their collections,” said Neal.

Other artifacts that have been recently returned to the Peabody are a spatulate stone celt from the Etowah Indian Mounds in Georgia, recovered in March of 2018, and an engraved Citico style shell gorget from the Little Egypt site, recovered in November of 2018. The Andover Police Department and the F.B.I. have been working with Wheeler to recover these artifacts after an initial contact with Thomas Rachels, who had purchased the spatulate stone celt. Rachels recognized his artifact in Warren K. Moorehead, the Peabody’s first curator and second director, “The Etowah Papers,” and contacted Wheeler in January 2018.

“[Rachels] was pretty sure that he had purchased the object pictured in this book, so he contacted us, and what he was interested in was really seeing if there was any paperwork that confirmed that it had left here legally,” said Wheeler.

There was no documentation of a legal transfer or sale of the artifacts in possession by Rachels, so cooperated in a return of the spatulate celt to the Peabody.

“One of the things that we got, along with this piece, were the names of other people, the person he had purchased it from, so we passed that name onto the F.B.I. and, along with a list of other things that we knew were missing, they went and talked to that person. Then, they had found out who he had bought things from, who he had sold things to, and so they were able to track down two more pieces that we knew were missing,” said Wheeler.

With these names, the F.B.I. was able to track down an engraved Citico style shell gorget and the monolithic axe. The investigation also involved Wheeler and Taylor searching through the archives at the Peabody.

“As part of this kind of negotiation and trying to understand what happened, Ryan and I spent a lot of time going through pictures of exhibitions and trying to find the axe in the picture so that we can document the last for sure time that we know it was here in the Peabody,” said Taylor.

According to Wheeler, the Peabody will continue looking for pieces that are missing. Due to their value, he believes that the artifacts are not destroyed. In order to fully account for every missing piece, the Peabody is currently undergoing a full inventory of the collection.

“We’re touching everything and recording everything that’s in the building currently. The flip side of that is looking through those old records and seeing all the things that are supposed to be here, and then we’re going to match those two things up and see where the old records say should be present but we did not physically find when we did the inventory. That’s going to reveal something,” said Taylor.

Tiffany Tang ’22, who does work duty in the Peabody, is currently cataloging the Peabody’s inventory. Tang is currently working to update the system to digital format, since physical labels can rub off.

“I think it’s really cool and exciting that the F.B.I. has been working with Andover. I didn’t know about this until now, and the Peabody does have a lot of really cool stuff…I think that’s cool that they found [the axe]. It’s kind of wild that someone took it and they haven’t been able to find it until now,” said Tang.

According to Taylor, the Peabody will continue to look out for potential hints to missing artifacts, including at auctions.

“You’d be surprised at what’s out there on eBay and things like that. We’re keeping our eyes peeled and we would notify the F.B.I. if we see anything. They would be involved in any of that. Whoever has [the artifacts] does not a clear legal title to them and so there are potential consequences,” said Taylor.