Sunday, October 15, 2017

Case of Missing History


By Joseph A. Slobodzian January 8, 1998

A treasure trove of Philadelphia's cultural heritage pilfered over 10 years from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania -- 200 relics ranging from a lock of George Washington's hair to the flintlock rifle abolitionist John Brown used at the siege of Harpers Ferry -- has been recovered by the FBI from the home of a suburban electrician.

For 10 years, federal authorities alleged last week, a Rutledge electrical contractor and history buff named George Csizmazia bought items stolen from the Historical Society's storage room by Earnest Medford, until recently a longtime society janitor.

Authorities allege that Medford sold the artifacts to Csizmazia for about $8,000, allowing the electrician with a passion for history to amass a collection of historical treasures officials valued at $2 million to $3 million.
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Meanwhile, federal investigators and society officials said they were searching for up to 100 other items discovered to be missing last year when the society first computerized its 12,000-artifact inventory.
"This must never happen again," said Susan Stitt, Historical Society president, during a news conference.
Although an FBI affidavit filed this week alleged he has admitted purchasing the stolen items from Medford, Csizmazia maintained his innocence during an interview at his home.

Csizmazia, 56, a stocky gray-haired man with a neatly trimmed mustache, said he did not know he bought stolen artifacts: "I am as shocked and surprised as anyone else. I didn't know it was stolen until the FBI came. . . . I bought some hot stuff, and I ended up being charged. I'm really upset about it."

Medford, 48, of Trainer, Pa., could not be reached, and his federal defender, Eric Vos, said it was too soon to determine what Medford's defense might be.

Federal officials said that among the 200 relics removed from Csizmazia's two-story home and garage were the three historic ceremonial swords and long rifle whose theft was discovered last November from the society's Center City headquarters, setting off a probe by police and the FBI.

Both men were released on $100,000 bail Tuesday by a federal magistrate after being charged with theft of culturally significant historic artifacts.

Bob C. Reutter, head of the FBI's office in Center City, Pa., said Csizmazia and Medford surrendered to the FBI Tuesday morning.

In front of Reutter, covering about 30 feet of conference tables, was a stunning spread of items illustrating Philadelphia's history from Colonial times to the present: silver trophy cups and servers, swords, rifles and handguns, scores of pocket watches and medals from the Mexican-American, Spanish-American and other U.S. wars, eyeglasses and cigar holders, and telescopes and other scientific equipment.

Not only was there the rifle taken from John Brown in 1859 when he was captured by U.S. troops with 21 other abolitionists who took over the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., but there was a case containing a lock of Brown's hair.

Along the rear of the tables were municipal awards galore, large silver trophy cups including one early 19th-century cup from city officials to Frederick Graff, designer of the Fairmount Water Works, as well as the 1967 Philadelphia Award made to former mayor Richardson Dilworth.

U.S. Attorney Michael R. Stiles took pleasure in holding aloft a gold snuff box that New York officials gave to Andrew Hamilton, the model for the term "Philadelphia lawyer," commemorating his successful 1735 defense of John Peter Zenger, a New York printer and editor charged with libeling the Colonial governor of New York.

The case helped establish freedom of the press and the legal defense against libel but left Zenger broke, forcing him to pay Hamilton with a gift of his snuff box, which the gold replica commemorated.

Stiles said Congress had made the theft of important historic artifacts a federal crime in 1994 because such relics "educate us in a way that mere words and books cannot."

Investigators located the missing collection only through the most circuitous route.

According to an affidavit filed by FBI agent Robert K. Wittman, he and fellow agent Michael A. Thompson went to Richmond on Nov. 15 to interview people attending the Great Southern Weapons Fair, considered the largest Civil War weapons show in the eastern United States. At the fair, the agents interviewed Bruce Bazelon, a weapons expert for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and author of a book on Pennsylvania presentation swords.

Bazelon told the agents, the affidavit continued, that in 1994 a Poconos flea market dealer had shown him a photo of 10 antique swords by a potential seller -- one of which looked like a sword that he knew had been in the society's collection.

Agents contacted the Poconos dealer and were told that the photo belonged to Csizmazia.

On Dec. 23, the affidavit alleges, the agents questioned Csizmazia and the electrician admitted "he had been receiving antiques taken from the {Historical Society} during the past 10 years." Stitt, the Historical Society's president, and federal authorities Tuesday tried to put the best face possible on what was an embarrassing moment for the society.

Stitt said the society's administration was "shocked and saddened that this was done by one of our own family, a 20-year staff member." Medford was fired shortly after he was contacted by the FBI.
Stitt said the thefts were the result of "under-capitalization and underfunding of this society for 107 years."

She said that donors to the Historical Society too often wanted their money used only for public displays and exhibits rather than such mundane items as staff or security. "Unfortunately, it's easier to pay for the sizzle than the steak," Stitt said. "Here we have some very important steak." CAPTION: FBI agent Bob C. Reutter displays a sword and other items that were stolen from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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