|By Eric C. Rodenberg
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — One of the oldest, rarest and most historically significant bottles in the United States – missing for more than 50 years – has finally been tracked down and repatriated to the The Wistar Institute.
Ironically, the bottle – estimated to be worth $150,000 to $200,000 – was found only a couple of miles from The Wistar – exhibited in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).
Charles M. Oberly, III, U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware, and Edward J. Hanko, Special Agent in Charge of the Philadelphia FBI announced the return of the rare glass bottle to the Wistar Institute.
The bottle was granted to The Wistar Institute in 1905 by Civil War Union Gen. Isaac J. Wistar, a great nephew of Caspar Wistar who operated the first successful glass factory in the American Colonies.
The bottle was made between 1745 and 1755 at the Wistarburgh Glass Works in Salem County, N.J., according to Staci L. Vernick, director of communications at The Wistar Institute. The bottle was taken from the Wistar collection by a former “light-fingered curator” in 1958, according to a person close to the investigation.
Throughout the years the bottle was purchased and sold on several occasions.
“The bottle was stolen and any number of people along the way knew it was stolen, but didn’t take any action,” said the source, who wished to remain anonymous. “Prior to 1991, all of the press on the bottle listed the owner as Anonymous.”
In 1991, the 8 1/2-inch bottle surfaced at the PMA’s Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania 1680-1758. In the exhibit catalog, the owner of the rare bottle (only one other exists in the Corning Museum in New York) is identified as Mr. and Mrs. William S. Hyland of Philadelphia.
“You’ve heard the expression, ’hidden in plain view,” the source said. Hyland knew the bottle was stolen, sources say.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney David L. Hall emphasized that the case was handled as a civil matter.
“There were two legal points here,” Hall said. “The item was stolen. And it was being exhibited. That makes it expressly forbidden under federal statute. We obtained a seizure warrant from the court, and then forfeited the property to the U.S. Court, then they gave it back to the rightful owner.
“In general, when a valuable artifact – a piece of cultural heritage – is stolen it enters into the stream of commerce. It’s bought and sold several times. The person who ends up with it doesn’t know that it was stolen. But, he still does not have title, and is not knowingly committing a crime. There was no charge here. It was handled as a civil matter only.”
But, according to others close to the investigation, Hyland was notified in 2009 that Wistar was filing a claim for the bottle “… which the owner ignored and continued to ignore, and then moved to another state (New Mexico) where he had to be located again,” according to sources.
Before the bottle became a target of investigation in 2009, it had passed through a series of twists and turns during the past 50 years.
The bottle, in addition to a trove of anatomical specimens and other oddities, allegedly was taken from The Wistar by Thomas Haviland, one-time professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School and curator for a museum and library in Washington.
When Haviland died in 1986, he not only left a house full of books and scientific specimens, but had a storage locker that consequently fell into arrears.
In 1988, a man identified by sources as a book dealer bought a boxful of “old bottles” at a storage unit sale at Society Hill Self Storage in Philadelphia. In that box, was the Wistar bottle.
The dealer was struck by the apparent age of the bottle and the embossed “RW” initials. The dealer reportedly contacted New York dealer Gary Stradling, an expert in American glass who was knowledgeable of existing pieces of tableware and some of the processes used by the Wistarburgh Glass Works.
In early 1991, Stradling was said to have had a $55,000 asking price on the bottle. “The book dealer told Stradling that he had not asked any questions about the bottle’s provenance, and Stradling said he had not asked the consignor where he got it,” according to a May 20, 1991 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“In the Haviland auction, a good number of other items from the Wistar Museum collections showed up, anatomical specimens and other items he had taken from the collection. Deplorable, again, but similar to other cases,” a source said.
Wistar was chartered in 1892 as a museum and study center for early American anatomists and biologists. “This rare glass bottle is part of a notable collection of biological specimens, rare books and other artifacts, many of which were used to instruct medical students,” according to Vernick.
She valued the bottle at “more than $100,000.”
“We are very pleased at the return of the historic RW bottle, a part of our heritage, to the permanent collections of the Wistar Institute,” Vernick said.
The long-lost bottle will not directly return to the Wistar. The institute is “finalizing a loan agreement with PMA to continue display the bottle for one year,” Vernick said.
The case was handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware and the FBI Art Theft Team of the Philadelphia Division of the FBI.
The Wistar Institute hired retired FBI investigator Robert K. Wittman, who founded the art crime team and is personally responsible for the recovery of millions of dollars in stolen art and artifacts throughout the world.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hall credited Wittman and Nina P. Long, director of Library Services and Archivist, and Curator of the Museums Collections at Wistar as being “vital” to the recovery of the bottle.
“This is a common back pattern we have seen happening over and over,” Wittman said. “Dealers, collectors and all buyers are responsible for doing their own due diligence. Not only do they have to be concerned with the authenticity of an item, but it’s just as important to assure they are buying a clear title.”
The buyer cannot assume clear title if a piece of artwork is stolen, regardless of the time of the theft, Wittman reiterated. “There cannot be any gaps in the provenance. A buyer has to do his homework – otherwise it can be very expensive … and very embarrassing.”
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