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January 15, 2020Providence, RI, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

Collection of historic stone projectile points returned to R.I. Haffenreffer Museum following HSI probe

Left Photo: Present for the return ceremony (Left to right) U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island Aaron L. Weisman, Wheeler family members, HSI Providence Special Agent Michael Polouski and HSI Tacoma (Washington) Special Agent Michael Roots; standing in rear : HSI Providence Resident Agent In Charge Bryan Lewis. | Upper Right Photo: Historic projectile points recovered and returned to museum by HSI agents, U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, local police | Lower Right Photo: HSI Providence Special Agent Michael Polouski looks on as Haffenreffer Museum official signs documentation officially receiving possession of artifacts.

PROVIDENCE - An historic collection of 34 stone projectile points, some determined to be more than 1,000 years old, were returned Jan. 15, to Rhode Island’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology more than 30 years after they first vanished from the museum’s collections, thanks to the joint efforts of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Providence, the United States Attorney for Rhode Island, Brown University Police and the Bristol (Rhode Island) Police Department. The announcement was made by HSI Acting Special Agent in Charge Jason Molina and United States Attorney for Rhode Island Aaron L. Weisman at ceremony at the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The stone projectile points, used primarily for hunting, were unearthed by Harrie M. Wheeler, a noted Rhode Island collector and amateur archeologist, during excavations that he conducted between 1928 and 1950 in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

Participating in the return ceremony were representatives from the Haffenreffer Museum, HSI Providence Resident Agent In Charge Bryan Lewis, HSI Providence Special Agent Michael Polouski and HSI Tacoma (Washington) Special Agent Michael Roots. In addition, as well as Wheeler’s great, great grandsons Jason Langlais and Brian Cory, themselves amateur archeologists who continue to follow in their great, great grandfather’s footsteps.

“The trafficking of artifacts threatens the preservation and study of the world’s culture and history,” said Jason Molina, acting special agent in charge, Homeland Security Investigations, Boston. “Along with the critical efforts of the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, HSI continues to strongly support the return of stolen cultural items to their rightful owners.”

United States Attorney Aaron L. Weisman said, “I am gratified that we, at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, were able to play some role in returning to the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology these historic items excavated, many, many decades ago, in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and likely dating to the pre-Columbian Twelfth Century,” said United States Attorney Aaron L. Weisman.

Harrie M. Wheeler, a Rhode Island native with a passion for pre-Columbian archaeology and anthropology, sold part of his collection of artifacts to Rudolf F. Haffenreffer Jr. in 1928 for the sum of $1,000. Haffenreffer was a local brewer, entrepreneur and philanthropist who subsequently founded the museum that bears his name, and that became a part of Brown University in 1955 following his death. A second set of artifacts gathered by Wheeler, including the stone projectile points returned today, were acquired by the Museum in 1985.

Two years later, in 1987, the Museum’s assistant curator noticed that the stone projectile points, along with a number of other items, were missing. They were reported stolen to Brown University and Bristol Police. While a number of the stolen items surfaced over the course of the next three decades at flea markets or private sales, the fate of this particular group of missing artifacts remained a mystery until early 2019, when an adroit observer noticed a listing on eBay offering a “collection of museum quality arrowheads” for sale for $500.00. The listing included photos, one of which showed the stone projectile points in their original display box, bearing a label reading: “Arrowheads from a Rhode Island Archaeological dig in East Greenwich, Kent County, Rhode Island, 1928-1950, Ex Wheeler Collection, Haffenreffer Museum, All Authentic.”

One of the items was marked with the number “85-827,” which matched the Haffenreffer’s catalog number for the artifacts. Contacted by the individual who first observed the listing, curators at the Haffenreffer reached out to the Brown University and Bristol Police Departments, who in turn requested the assistance of HSI. Federal investigators were able to quickly locate the eBay seller, secure the items, and confirm their provenance.

Based on the investigation by HSI special agents who worked on the case, it was discovered an eBay seller acquired the stone projectile points for a case of wine from an individual who listed them on Craigslist. HSI's investigation, and efforts to determine the whereabouts of other items stolen from the Haffenreffer collection in 1987 remains ongoing, and anyone with potentially relevant information is urged to contact the HSI Tip Line at (866) 347-2423.

Using a provision of federal law that allows the government to recover stolen goods that travel across state lines, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Rhode Island filed a lawsuit to forfeit the stone projectile points. Following completion of that lawsuit, and a review of Brown’s petition for return of the projectile points to the Museum, federal authorities today were able to return them to where they properly belong.

This case is one of many in which the United States has used the federal forfeiture laws to secure the return of stolen cultural property, art, and artifacts, to museums who have been victimized by theft.

U.S. Attorney Weisman extended the federal Government’s thanks to Brown University and to the Bristol Police Department, whose cooperation and collaboration in the investigation of the theft were instrumental to the return of these irreplaceable historical artifacts.

ICE has recovered and returned approximately 12,000 artifacts to more than 30 countries since 2007, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria; cultural artifacts from China and Cambodia; dinosaur fossils from Mongolia; and illuminated manuscript left from Italy; a pair of royal Korean seals, ancient Peruvian ceramics, and most recently, an ancient gold coffin repatriated to Egypt.

Despite increasingly aggressive enforcement efforts to prevent the theft of cultural heritage and other antiquities, the illicit movement of such items across international borders continues to challenge global law enforcement efforts to reduce the trafficking of such property. Trafficking in antiquities is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar transnational criminal enterprise.

Members of the public who have information about the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete the online tip form.