Arts, Culture & Media

An 18th century Chinese jade censer, stolen from Harvard in 1979, has finally been returned

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Credit: Harvard Art Museums

The 18th century Chinese jade censer that was stolen from the Fogg Museum in 1979 has been returned to the Harvard Art Museums.

If you've ever admired a pair of beautiful jade earrings, or a piece of ancient Chinese jade in a museum, you'll appreciate this story.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

It's about stolen artwork that's been returned to its owner. Specifically an 18th century Chinese jade incense burner — stolen 35 years ago from a Harvard University art museum. US officials recovered it from Sotheby's auction house in Hong Kong.

Investigators with the US Departnment of Homeland Security on Tuesday handed back the precious jade art — very gingerly mind you — to Harvard Art Museums staff.

Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers was on hand. He said it was "like one of those Russian doll sets, everything was wrapped inside something else. It's a tiny piece, six inches tall, inside a box, inside a smaller box, and frankly when they take it out its a little anti-climactic."

The 18th century Chinese jade artwork is a beauty, though.

It's an ornamental incense burner, or censer, with solid bright green jadeite handles and carved with dragons and Buddhist lions.

"It's beautiful, it's in beautiful condition," Edgers said. "The way the green jade shines in the light, you can tell its a pretty, beautiful, ornate piece."

The artwork disappeared from Harvard's Fog Art Museum in 1979, and eventually turned up at Sotheby's auction house in Hong Kong. Specialists identified the artwork as stolen by checking the Art Loss Register of London. Meanwhile, investigators are releasing limited information. Edgers reports there is an ongoing investigation into how it was stolen, but there is a suspect.

"Whoever took this piece, and they aren't saying who, must have believed that, after 30 years, that no one was going to notice, because this isn't Vermeer's The Concert (stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 and still missing). I mean this is a decorative piece of art that maybe they thought would slip under the radar and they'd make a cool $1.5 million," he says.

One investigator said the recovery "gives hope for stolen pieces of artwork, that they will resurface, because we'll be able to track them down."

Melissa Moy*, curator of Chinese art for Harvard Art Museums, was more than pleased the art was recovered. "We're absolutely thrilled. This piece is beautiful, it's very important piece in our collection, we are absolutely delighted."

Moy says the jade censer was created during a relatively prosperous and stable period in China's history, when there was an avid desire to collect things. "Somebody who was of elite status probably would have commissioned a piece like this to show their cultivation as someone who appreciates ancient Chinese art and antiquities. So the piece is really not functional, it's a miniturized version of a functional incense burner. But it is a beautiful piece that probably would have been a display piece within a person's home."

Moy wouldn't put a price tag on the art work, but it's believed to be valued at $1.5 million. "We value it for its educational, historical, and cultural value. The piece is important to us for our teaching, our exhibitions program, for research," she says. "We at Harvard are very fortunate to have a very rich and deep collection of Chinese art, so this adds to the narrative we are trying to teach. We have very strong collections of early Chinese bronzes, excellent ceramics and so this particular piece helps continue that story of the evolution of important ritual objects and shapes in Chinese culture and history."

Moy and her art museum colleagues are just thrilled to have it back. "It's been a long time coming, and I look forward to studying it and researching it more." She says the jade censer will be available to Harvard students and scholars to study, and eventually may be exhibited at Harvard's newly renovated Fogg Art Museum — set to reopen later this year.

Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Melissa Moy's name. We regret the error.

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