On Christmas morning 1950 four college students from Scotland broke into London’s Westminster Abbey and snatched an ancient block of sandstone used for centuries in the coronation of Scottish monarchs until it was seized from Scotland’s Scone Abbey in 1296 by England’s King Edward I. The king had the Stone of Scone, also called the Stone of Destiny, moved to Westminster Abbey and placed in a special chair upon which English, and later British, monarchs have been crowned since the early 14th century. (The artifact’s origins are uncertain, but according to one legend the biblical figure Jacob used the stone as a pillow.) The Scottish students viewed their removal of the stone, which they accidentally broke in two while taking it, as an act of nationalism. The heist made headlines around the world, but police failed to find the stone. However, in April 1951 the hefty artifact turned up at Scotland’s Arbroath Abbey, draped in the national flag. Although the authorities determined the identity of the students involved in the theft, they were never prosecuted. The stone was returned to Westminster Abbey in time for Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation, but in 1996, on the 700th anniversary of its removal, the British government sent the iconic object back to Scotland, on the condition it can be used for future royal coronations at Westminster Abbey. The Stone of Scone is now housed at Edinburgh Castle.
Walt Whitman’s notebooks
In the early 1940s, during World War II, the Library of Congress packed up a number of valuable items in its collections, including 10 notebooks once belonging to celebrated poet Walt Whitman (1819-92), and sent them to locations outside of Washington, D.C., for safekeeping. Sometime during the process, Whitman’s notebooks, which had been donated to the library in 1918 by one of his literary executors, disappeared and were thought stolen. Prized by scholars, the notebooks contained early versions of material that later appeared in Whitman’s famous 1855 book of poetry, “Leaves of Grass,” and also included a chronicle of Whitman’s time as a nurse for the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. In 1995, some 50 years after the notebooks went missing, four of them re-appeared at Sotheby’s auction house in New York, brought there by a man who’d discovered them among his deceased father’s possessions. According to the man, his father had been given the notebooks as a gift and kept them for three decades. The man didn’t realize the notebooks, which in 1995 were reportedly worth as much as $500,000, had been stolen. Sotheby’s returned the notebooks to the Library of Congress; the whereabouts of the other six volumes remains unknown.
Original copy of the Bill of Rights
In 1789, President George Washington had 13 handwritten copies of the Bill of Rights sent to the 13 states for ratification. Three-quarters of a century later, at the end of the Civil War, a Union soldier who wanted a souvenir stole North Carolina’s copy of the document from the state house in Raleigh when U.S. Gen. William Sherman’s army occupied the area in 1865. The following year, the soldier sold the document for five dollars to man who later hung it in his office in Indiana. In the 1920s the man attempted to sell the historic parchment back to North Carolina, but officials there refused to shell out money for something they considered stolen government property. Nothing more was heard about the artifact until 1995, when anonymous sellers offered it to North Carolina. Once again, officials declined to buy what they said already belonged to the state. After an attempt was made in 2003 to sell the document for $4 million to a Philadelphia museum, FBI agents seized it in a sting operation. Following a legal fight in which one of the men involved in the aborted sale claimed he still owned the document, a court officially decided it belonged to North Carolina.
In 1987, the Turkish government sued New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the return of a collection of artifacts from the Lydian kingdom in western Asia Minor, which flourished in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. The legendarily rich King Croesus ruled Lydia in the sixth century B.C. Turkish officials claimed the artifacts, referred to as both the Lydian Hoard and the Karun Treasure, had been looted from burial mounds in western Turkey in the 1960s, smuggled out of the country and sold to the Met. Following a lengthy legal battle, the museum in 1993 agreed to return the artifacts to Turkey, where they went on display in the Usak Archaeology Museum. However, in 2006 it was discovered that some of the pieces in the collection had been purloined and replaced with forgeries; prominent among them was a gold brooch in the shape of a winged seahorse. An investigation determined that the Usak museum’s director had sold the real brooch to pay off gambling debts. After being caught, the man reportedly blamed his problems on an ancient curse associated with the brooch; supposedly, trouble also had befallen the people who illegally excavated the Lydian Hoard in the 1960s. In 2012, authorities announced the brooch had been found in Germany and would be returned once again to Turkey.
In August 1911, a man hid overnight in a closet at the Louvre Museum in Paris then emerged early the next day, when the building was closed to the public, and stole the “Mona Lisa” off a wall. Painted by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci in the early 1500s, the work was acquired by the French monarchy by the mid-16th century and went on display at the Louvre in 1797. The theft of the “Mona Lisa” was international news and dramatically boosted its profile. A massive manhunt ensued–at different points, a young Pablo Picasso and American mogul and art collector J. Pierpont Morgan were among the suspects in the case–but for two years there was no sign of the missing masterpiece. Then, in late 1913, an art dealer in Florence received a letter from a man who said he had the painting and believed it should be returned to its native Italy (from which he thought, incorrectly, Napoleon had stolen it it). The man, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian-born house painter who lived in Paris, brought the “Mona Lisa” to Florence and showed it to the art dealer and the director of the Uffizi Gallery, who authenticated it. Although Peruggia, who once worked briefly at the Louvre, claimed he’d swiped the painting for patriotic reasons, he also was interested in a reward. Soon afterward, he was arrested and convicted, ultimately spending less than a year in jail for the crime. In January 1914, the “Mona Lisa” was returned to the Louvre, where it remains today.