The Museum of the American Revolution (MAR), like the Barnes Foundation on the Parkway, is an architectural breath of fresh air. Just walking into the building from the tight overcrowding of 3rd and Chestnut Street, one feels an immediate elevation of spirit, something akin to walking on air.

The museum’s central staircase alone is enough to give you a feeling of safety and refuge, reminding me of what an atheist tour guide told me years ago when I was in Paris for the first time: that in order to escape the madness of the city and to soothe his nerves, he sometimes slips into the Cathedral of Notre Dame to sit, ponder and meditate.

On Monday, March 13, I headed over to MAR for what I thought would be the most unusual press event of 2023: a stolen artifacts repatriation ceremony, during which sixteen museums and historical societies would receive items that were stolen from them over the last 50 years.

The items in question were mostly military or gun-related in some way. A few of the items included: a Civil War era knife with sheath; English holsters and pistols, all of them 18th century; a Cotton musket from 1775; a Colt pistol from WWI; a Civil War-era bullet pouch; an engraved 1758 powder horn carried by Justus Dwight in the French and Indian War. There were also pewter plates and cups, and a Peter Derr lamp.

The sixteen museums in question were located in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, New York, and Massachusetts. Of special interest to me were items stolen from The George C. Neumann Collection at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Growing up in Chester County just six miles from Valley Forge, as children we would often hike to the park in summer and winter and try to imagine what it was like for General George Washington and his men. 

The press event was held in the third floor amphitheater of the museum. Over one hundred people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in folding chairs faced a mammoth pale screen filled with small print diagrams and instructional arrows. A speaker’s podium was arranged in the center of the stage. Press events rarely start on time, but it seems that this one started on the dot of 11, or even earlier. A long line of TV cameras filled the back of the room. The camerapeople, all dressed in technician-casual style (windbreakers, jeans), stood in stark contrast to the people in the folding chairs, men and women in suits: district attorneys, prosecutors, lawyers and their aides-de-camp, plus museum personnel from the museums in question.  

There was not a free seat in the house. 

The repatriation ceremony felt like the most crowded press event in Philadelphia’s history!

Unable to find a seat, I stood against the wall as did several others while a speaker at the podium told the story of how the museum artifacts had been recovered. It started a long time ago when somebody reported to the police the sale of a firearm to an antiques dealer. Although the antique pistol had not been stolen, the investigation set the ball rolling. 

It is an undisputed fact that most people are not good public speakers. The idea that anybody can hold an audience in rapt attention for an inordinate amount of time is social heresy. It didn’t take me long to realize that not only were most of the speakers saying practically the same thing, but that too many of them were invited to speak simply because of their connection to the stolen items.  

The official list of speakers included six major presenters, including Dr. Scott Stephenson, President and CEO of MAR. Stephenson, who seems like a likable man, injected politics into his talk when he segued into talking about fascism and the war in Ukraine. (A photo of Zelensky did not appear on the massive screen but in a way I wish it had because it would have been far more colorful than what remained on screen throughout the event.) This press event needed the savvy skills of a marketing whiz because it was too much like a city property sheriff’s sale than an historic repatriation ceremony.

In addition to the six main speakers, sixteen other speakers, each one allotted two to three minutes a piece, told their individual stories surrounding this or that stolen artifact. The sixteen speakers alone took 58 minutes but add to that the six main speakers at five minutes each (some went over), and you have almost 90 minutes of listening time.

Professional public speakers and authors on book tours know that the human ear (in the audience) begins to peter out after 35 minutes. After that the audience puts on a stoic face but falls asleep mentally. Too much information is sometimes just that but when the information is repeated but in a different form, and when the speeches become personal — “I want to thank Mrs. Rosenberg in Louisville, Kentucky,” etc. — you know that the group melatonin effect is beginning to kick in.

Ironically, this strange crowd of prosecutors, lawyers, et al left the light breakfast table — mini muffins and yogurt with granola — almost untouched. Strangely, the coffee in both canisters was cold. 

What to do?

I had heard there was a stolen but retrieved musket on display somewhere in MAR but by the time I left the amphitheater my curiosity had gone limp. A room full of prosecutors and assistant district attorneys had put a strange vibe in the air, so I opted for a mini-muffin and a yogurt, amazed that I was the only one partaking. 

A little later, getting on the elevator to go to the first floor, I was joined by three very tall and slim FBI agents. One could tell they were FBI because they all had the same look in their eyes: a look that regarded everything, even the buttons on the elevator doors, as suspicious. Besides, these were Biden-era FBI men, the kind of woke agents, perhaps, who were recently forced to retract a memo that characterized Catholics with a devotion to the Traditional Latin Mass as possible domestic threats. 

I’m not making the Latin Mass stuff up — Google it.  

Anyway, the FBI certainly isn’t what it was decades ago, and maybe that’s a good thing — Hoover in a dress going after other men in dresses — but still, the FBI under Biden and Merrick Garland has become a little cockeyed, repatriated museum items notwithstanding.

That brings us to the closing segment of this piece, the fact that once I arrived home and in front of my computer, I decided to research stolen art masterpieces and came across a number of famous art thefts in history, beginning with the March 1990 art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where two men dressed as police officers entered the museum pretending to be responding to a call. 

The thieves promptly tied up two security guards and stole thirteen pieces of art worth half a billion dollars in all. The most famous piece, Rembrandt Van Rijn’s masterpiece, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” struck me dumb with its power and grandeur when I visited the museum in 1970, back when I called myself a skeptical atheist. The museum was the former home of Isabella Stewart Gardner — a Boston socialite born in New York who was nevertheless a devout Anglo-Catholic who legend has it was once made to do penance by scrubbing the steps of the Church of the Advent on Brimmer Street in Beacon Hill.  

The friend who took me to the Gardner Museum was an avowed thief himself, but only when it came to walking out of restaurants without paying the check. Indescribably beautiful with his pre-Raphaelite curls, he had all the old gay men of Beacon Hill shaking in their opera capes whenever he visited Sporter’s bar on Cambridge Street, but because I was indifferent to his beauty, he took to me like a moth to flame. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest will be released in May 2023.

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