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

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

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is "The World." If you've ever admired a pair of beautiful jade earrings or a piece of ancient Chinese jade, you'll appreciate this story. It's about stolen artwork that's been returned to its owner. This 18th century jade incense burner was stolen 35 years ago from an art museum at Harvard University. US officials recovered it from an auction house in Hong Kong and yesterday it was officially and very carefully returned to museum staff. Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers was there.

Geoff Edgers: It was like one of those Russian doll sets. Everything was wrapped inside everything else. It's a tiny piece. It's 6 inches tall. It was inside a box, inside a smaller box, wrapped in some sort of material. Then there was some kind of packing material. Finally when they take it out, frankly it's a little anticlimactic. You're expecting music or drums and it's a very small decorative piece that they put on a table.

Werman: It's jade, it's ancient, so automatically it's valuable, but what else makes it so precious?

Edgers: It's beautiful; it's in beautiful condition. The green, the way the jade shines in the light - you can tell that it's a pretty beautiful, ornate piece. But I will say that when I was walking down the hallway today, one of my editors stopped me and said, "I think we have a couple of those," and she might. You could've purchased one of these 40 years ago for a reasonable price. This one in particular now is supposedly worth a million and a half dollars, something like that.

Werman: I gather from the photograph in the Boston Globe that there's some very intricate carvings of animals on it. It sounds quite spectacular.

Edgers: Yes. I asked someone who worked at the museums, "What are those?" and they said, "Dogs." We looked a little closer and they were actually lions. I personally liked how on either side of the piece there are these rings, circular rings of jade and they're just one piece. It's not like they're linked in. Somebody had to carve that smooth, circular ring just perfectly. I don't know the craft involved but it looked special.

While there's all sorts of symbolism - talking to the curator, she was starting to go into this stuff about the tiger and the monster face, but she really just eventually said, "You know what, this is basically just a decorative piece of art that someone wealthy would have and that's what it is. It's not really anything deeper than that."

Werman: Geoff, it's rare that pieces stolen in art theft get returned. So what happened with this investigation that actually got the goods back?

Edgers: The investigators who were talking to us from the Department of Homeland Security invoked the "ongoing investigation" phrase about a hundred times when I was, but you know what happened is that somebody tried to sell it. The world has changed since 1979 when it was stolen. Someone jammed open a case and took it. It was gone. It disappeared.

Where it reemerged was in 2009 when somebody brought it to Sotheby's in Hong Kong. What is it? 75 hundred miles away? 30 years from when it was taken? They tried to put it up for auction. There are incredible numbers of databases now. Everything is computerized. There are all these government agencies all linked into interpol. I can name all of these places and I don't know how they work but I know they do something - once that thing came up they knew that this was the piece that Harvard had stolen years ago.

What it comes down to, and I'd really be trying to get into somebody's head, whoever took this piece, and they aren't saying who but they do have a suspect, must've believed that after 30 years that no one was going to notice. This isn't Vermeer's "The Concert." It's a decorative piece of art that they thought would slip under the radar and they'd make a million and a half dollars.

Werman: Well we've got a photo of the Jade Censer at Pri.Org. Geoff Edgers with the Boston Globe, thanks for telling us about it.

Edgers: Thanks for having me.