CHICAGO – Stolen documents, military medals and other artifacts valued at about $5 million — including letters signed by Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson — were returned Wednesday to Chicago's Polish Museum after being found in the basement of a home decades after they went missing.
The more than 120 items, which were returned following an FBI investigation, include letters and documents dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, seals, military medals and Nazi propaganda from World War II. The pieces also included documentation about Napoleon, George Washington, John Adams and American Revolution hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
Museum president Maria Ciesla said she couldn't catch her breath when she received the phone call that the items, missing since the 1970s and 1980s, were located.
"This is something that we had dreamed and hoped for for so many years," Ciesla said. "It is so important for us to have this safely back not only for the rich Polish history but also for the wonderful American history. It is so important to the world stage."
Officials said Chicago coin and antiques dealer Harlan Berk notified the museum last October that his office had purchased historic items it had traced to the institution. The museum contacted the FBI, which started an investigation.
Berk told the FBI that the sellers said they found the artifacts in the basement of a Chicago house where they were tenants. FBI Art Crime Team investigators found that the residence was owned by the mother of a former Polish museum curator. The FBI recovered additional artifacts and documents from the home.
No charges were filed because the FBI couldn't determine who took the items from the museum or exactly when they were taken. The statute of limitations in the case also had run out.
Now the museum will catalogue the items, which likely will go on exhibit in the next few years. The museum is asking for anyone else with artifacts to come forward and return them as well.
"There's probably hundreds of documents still out there," Ciesla said.