True Crime Stories at Pennsbury

Yesterday, I saw a news article about a free lecture scheduled for Nov. 6 at Pennsbury Manor. I see a lot of program announcements and always take note in case there’s something I should include in the monthly preview for Trailheads (look for November’s in a couple of weeks—I know you can’t wait). I dutifully added the lecture to my list of events and set it aside.

And then it hit me. The lecture is by Robert K. Wittman, a former FBI special agent who spent his career (much of it undercover) working to recover art objects and antiquities taken from museums all over the world. (You might have seen him on The Colbert Report in early August, promoting his best-selling book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.) Paintings by Rembrandt, Goya, and Rockwell (you don’t often see those three mentioned together), a piece of 2,000-year old Peruvian battle armor, and Geronimo’s war bonnet are among the notable recoveries.

From a Trailheads perspective, though, Wittman’s most important case was—anyone?—a burglary and theft at Pennsbury. On Feb. 6, 1996, three men crashed a car through Pennsbury’s gate, drove down the path toward the river and forced open a door to the manor house. While inside, they wreaked havoc and made off with about 50 pieces from the collection, including an 18-inch pewter charger that bore William Penn’s initials. (See news article here.)

Pennsbury’s staff, still in shock and taking it personally, moved quickly to get the word out. They called on local law enforcement, and the FBI was also brought in. Assuming that the thieves intended to sell the items rather than start a rival historic house museum, they notified arts and antiques dealers throughout the Philadelphia area. (I remember assembling a list of dealers in central PA and forwarding Pennsbury’s notice from our Harrisburg office.)

A week to 10 days after the burglary, the three began to panic and, with the help of several female accomplices, dumped most of the loot into the Delaware River (not a good environment for historic artifacts). In perhaps the most cinematic twist in this story, the thieves were arrested soon after when they attempted to steal a 400-pound safe from a local coffee shop (ironically, the safe contained only $120).

With information provided by the guilty parties, divers began searching the Delaware and recovered about two-thirds of the stolen artifacts, including the pewter charger. The staff were exuberant when the items returned home and could eventually be put back on public view (see article here.) The thieves pleaded guilty (here and here) and were sentenced under the 1994 Theft of Major Artworks statute (Pennsbury’s theft was the first case prosecuted under this new federal law).

Wittman (and Pennsbury staff) can tell the story much better than I, so for details about the lecture, go here. I’ll be working on my screenplay; any casting suggestions?


Post a Comment