Harvard Gets Its Chinese Jade Artifact Back

The artifact disappeared in 1979, and was recovered half-way across the world.

Photo Courtesy of  Harvard Art Museums

Photo Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums

A rare Chinese artifact that was stolen more than 30 years ago from the Harvard University Art Museums is now back in the hands of its rightful owners, and will soon be on display for the general public once again.

With the help of special agents from Boston’s Homeland Security Investigations division and the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigrations and Customs office, museum curators in Cambridge welcomed back an 18th century Qing Dynasty jade censer, an incense holder that first disappeared in 1979 from the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard.

Ernest B. Dane, an art collector who graduated from Harvard College and his wife, Helen Pratt Dane, gave the incense holder to the school’s museum in 1942. Thirty years after they made the generous donation, the rare artifact was stolen during an exhibition open to the public.

Officials said due to the quality, craftsmanship, and rarity of the jade censer, it was a highly sought-after object that could yield a large profit if sold.

Despite a concerted effort, it wasn’t until May 2013 that investigators were finally able to retrieve the stolen property—a green piece featuring two dragon’s heads protruding from the sides, which stands on three legs at roughly six-and-a-half inches tall—after it almost went up for sale in China through the auctioneering company Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s, which came in contact with the jade censer in 2009, ran a search in the Art Loss Register database before they put the item out for bid, and it matched the one reported stolen from Harvard some 30 years prior.

As soon as it was discovered, the censer was  handed over to law enforcement officers under the National Stolen Property Act and U.S. Customs laws. It was officially transferred back to the staff at the Harvard Art Museums on Tuesday, to the relief of the museums’ director.

“We are truly grateful for the engagement and collaboration with the Division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s Office over many months while we worked through the necessary channels to return the censer,” said Thomas Lentz, director of the Harvard Art Museums. “Because of their efforts, the censer rejoins our permanent collections just before we open the doors to our newly renovated, state-of-the-art facility this fall, when it will be accessible once again to students, faculty, and scholars.”

While the censer is safe in Cambridge for the first time since the 1970s, investigators said the case is still active, and is being prosecuted by Veronica M. Lei of the U.S. Attorney’s Asset Forfeiture Unit.