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‘Largest Art Theft’: 50 Years of Searching for the Stolen Fogg Coins

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{shortcode-24643cedbe14221289878261864001a8ceef067a}n a December night in 1973, five armed men broke into Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and stole more than 6,000 ancient Greek and Roman coins — an incident that The Crimson reported at the time was “believed to be the largest art theft in U.S. history.”

Minted between the seventh century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E., the silver, gold, and bronze coins were worth approximately $2 million — more than $8.5 million today. A University press release after the theft said they were a “fundamental” and “irreplaceable” part of Harvard’s teaching collection.

In the following months and years, the University and federal law enforcement mobilized to find and catalog the missing coins. With the work of more than 40 FBI agents assigned to the case, approximately 85 percent of the original collection has since been retrieved.

Still, the theft’s legacy lives on in the minds of art enthusiasts. Laure Marest, the current associate curator of ancient coins at the Harvard Art Museums, said the “traumatic” event continues to be remembered by museum staff.

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A Nighttime Robbery

On Dec. 1, 1973, a 20-year-old man left a brown paper bag labeled “Coop” with the Fogg Museum security guards.

A few hours later, after the museum had closed, a guard received a call from a “Mr. Ryan” claiming that he had forgotten his bag and would be coming around to pick it up. When the man came to pick up the bag at around midnight, he produced a revolver.

A simple pickup quickly transformed into an armed robbery.

Four other armed men followed the supposed Mr. Ryan, taking the guard’s key ring to the coin room and smashing open the cases.

As none of the thieves were art historians, they also mistakenly broke into display cases holding replicas of coins actually held in the British Museum before realizing that they were fake and had no backside.

The Fogg Museum didn’t know what would happen to the stolen coins: whether they would be distributed across the country, sold at auctions, buried in backyards, or even melted down for their gold and silver content.

A few months after the theft, authorities found more than 3,000 of the stolen coins buried in Rhode Island. Less than one month later, more than 800 coins were found in Montreal when police arrested an American art smuggler.

As coins were returned to the Fogg, museum staff and graduate students at Harvard worked to identify and catalog them — a difficult task given the lack of photo documentation or even a complete list of the original coin collection.

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Meanwhile, the police investigation continued and, in 1976, the thieves were brought to trial and convicted. In 1979, five-month investigation culminated in the State Police working with an informant to uncover an additional 2,883 coins.

This brought the total number of recovered coins to 6,773, which has remained largely unchanged since. Over the past four decades, a few small coin discoveries have been made, including in 1994, when a building custodian found one coin under the edge of the rubber carpet in the coin room.

Completing the Collection

Fifty years after the theft, the Harvard Art Museums has beefed up security and is now embarking on a new plan to retrieve the roughly 15 percent of stolen coins still missing today.

After her appointment as the associate curator of ancient coins in 2023, Marest initiated a two-part plan.

Phase one entailed working with graduate students to build an online inventory based upon photographs of part of the collection, while phase two involved hiring computer science students to comb through art auction listings from the past 15 years to find matches using artificial intelligence.

According to Marest, when the coin investigations were still ongoing in the 1970s, there were no “aggregated databases.”

“So checking to see if anything would show up on the art market would entail manually checking every single auction catalog and also having an incredible visual memory,” she said.

The advent of AI simplified the task. Marest said the plan is “only possible now with those databases.”

With most of the coins recovered, visitors can view parts of the collection in the Harvard Art Museums’ permanent exhibition — and even request to hold many of the formerly stolen coins with their hands.

Despite the public access, the Harvard Art Museums isn’t taking any chances.

When asked about the updated security measures, Marest shook her head and said, “I can’t discuss that.”

—Staff writer Xinni (Sunshine) Chen can be reached at sunshine.chen@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sunshine_cxn.

—Staff writer Julian J. Giordano can be reached at julian.giordano@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @jjgiordano1 or on Threads @julianjgiordano.

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