A Native American artifact stolen in the 1990s by a disgraced Wisconsin Historical Society museum curator has wended its way back to the institution’s collection, nurturing a faint but persistent hope that other stolen artifacts might follow.
The path to the recovery of the beaded, northern Plains knife sheath began in January, but the return of the sheath from an unnamed museum in New York was not announced until last week in an understated notice in a monthly society publication.
The sheath is the first to be returned of 116 — now 115 — items listed as still missing and stolen by David Wooley, a curator in the Native American ethnographic and archaeological collections who was convicted of stealing more than $100,000 worth of Native American artifacts. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2001, and the thefts took place during his employment as a curator at the museum in the 1990s.
“We have been told that it usually takes a decade for these things to start surfacing,” said chief curator Paul Bourcier.
After Wooley was arrested, the museum recovered 32 missing items. The knife sheath is the 33rd, and the first since the arrest, said Bourcier.
In January, a dealer in artifacts from Montana called the museum to report he saw the sheath on the museum’s website — which lists the stolen items and includes photographs of 12 of the items — and recognized it as “recalling distinctly this piece in a transaction that occurred several years ago in New Mexico,” said Bourcier.
The dealer knew what happened to the sheath after that, and directed Bourcier to the website of a private New York museum, which had its Native American artifact collection images online.
“I looked at the two images on the screen and immediately knew that was it,” he said.
Bourcier and staff traced the sheath, with help from the New York museum, which received it as a donation from someone who bought it from a person who bought it from a “known associate” of David Wooley.
“Once we heard the name of the person from whom the dealer got it in New Mexico, we said ‘oh yeah’ and this was a name that came up during the investigation time and again,” said Bourcier.
According to an appraisal, the recovered sheath is a pre-1850 example of a northern Plains artifact with “seed beads as well as pony (larger) beads, and demonstrates a direct trading market between the northern Plains and the Great Lakes.” “Pony” beads are so-called because they were commonly used on horse gear arriving by pony trade with the first French fur trappers.
The sheath was donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1963 by Mary Land of Newark, N.J.
Bourcier said no arrests were made in the recovery of the sheath, though Capitol Police assisted in the investigation. He declined to name the private museum involved, and said the sheath was returned to the collection, in storage.
One of the difficulties encountered in searching for the stolen artifacts is so few of them — a dozen — were photographed. The list, which is posted here, now includes 115 items.
“Photography was not a routine part of processing until a decade ago or so,” said Bourcier. “Digitizing collections has made a huge difference,” he said, noting a recent inventory was completed of the museum’s entire “non-archeological collection of three-dimensional objects in Madison,” a collection of 100,000 objects.
Wooley, described in 2001 by Dane County Circuit Judge Moria Krueger as a “major criminal,” also was convicted of stealing an important artifact during his time as a curator for the tribal museum at Lac du Flambeau.