Friday, June 22, 2012

More on Return of Polish Museum Artifacts

Harlan Berk has kindly elaborated on his firm's part in returning artifacts stolen from a Polish American museum in Chicago.

Here is how Harlan recounts the event.

On September 30, 2011 a Friday evening at 6 PM as I was getting home I received a call from our document and paper money specialist Dennis Forgue. He informed me that we had purchased late that day an 4 page letter by Thomas Jefferson about how to finance the US government dated 1814 and a letter endorsed by Abraham Lincoln ,Gen. McClernand and Gen. Winfield Scott, and other items for $5000 . The people had asked for $2000. Monday morning I told Dennis to research the items for pedigree. The Jefferson papers were only published through 1813 so far by the Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series at Monticello and the U of VA, so he worked on the Lincoln. It came up that the Lincoln was published in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln from 1953 and that it was owned by the Polish Roman Catholic Union in Chicago, which had been renamed The Polish Museum of America, in Chicago.

I immediately called the Polish Museum and spoke to the museum president Maria Ciesla. I asked her if they had even de-accessioned anything. Her answer told me the items we had purchased were stolen ,in the true meaning of the word.To say the least she was thrilled. I told her that we should continue to buy from these people so we could recover all or as much of the material as possible. She ,with board approval agreed to reimburse us our purchase prices. We continued to buy for two months until November 7, 2011, spending $31,400 in all . The items were sold to us by different combinations of individuals usually brought in by a young man who ,until the last purchase refused to give his ID. There was always someone with him who gave ID and to whom the checks were written. We documented every transaction. Photocopying the ID ,the check we paid and every item we purchased and kept every individual purchase together. On the several occasions when the Museum reimbursed us we gave them copies of everything along with the real documents we had recovered.

The Museum wanted to call in the FBI but I asked them to wait as the repurchase program was working so well . I did not want to spook them and never be able to recover all the material. Finally when they said they were going to Sothebys with the rest of the material. I alerted a friend at Sothebys to the problem. The Museum then call in the FBI. They ,special agent Luigi Mondini, was very nice and professional as one would expect. We gave them copies of everything we had collected. The FBI recovered the final 121 items to add to the 279 we recovered. Even though we suspected that these items were past the statutes of limitation for theft, it never crossed our mind to keep them. They were and are the property of the Polish Museum of America and we are very happy to have recovered these great pieces of American history for them.

Again, kudos to Harlan Berk and Harlan J. Berk, Ltd. for ensuring long lost artifacts were returned to the Polish American Museum.

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