Penn Museum Crystal Ball, Statue Stolen Guard Ignored Burglar Alarms

Posted: November 12, 1988

Two valuable works of art, including a world-renowned Chinese crystal ball, were stolen from the University of Pennsylvania's museum while a guard assumed that the repeated alarms had been tripped by workers, police said yesterday.

As a result, the thief or thieves may have been inside the University Museum for as long as three hours. Stolen were the crystal ball, which may be worth as much as $400,000, and an Egyptian statuette valued at $50,000 or more. The theft stunned curators at the museum, who considered the crystal ball a prized part of the collection and a Philadelphia landmark.

"It is, without a doubt, one of the most popular pieces in the museum," the director, Robert H. Dyson Jr., said of the crystal ball. "It is a loss, if not returned, to the heritage of mankind in general."

The theft occurred sometime between 8:15 p.m. Thursday, when the museum

closed, and 8:15 a.m. yesterday, when a guard discovered the works missing. The museum has an elaborate security system that includes television monitors and alarms set off by motion.

Officials said a door at the museum's main entrance on Spruce Street near 33rd was damaged, although it was unclear if that was how the thief or thieves entered. City police and the FBI are investigating the case.

Museum officials said they did not know if any alarms sounded. But city detectives said tapes obtained by the police show alarms were repeatedly set off from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.

"The security guard on duty who heard the alarms thought it was the painters in the building, and he just ignored them," said Detective John Mulligan.

It was unclear if workers were scheduled to be in the museum overnight. Museum officials could not confirm or deny the police account because they had not interviewed the guard, a spokesman for the university said last night.

Police said the guard, whom they questioned yesterday, is not considered a

suspect.

The crystal ball held the most prominent place in the third-floor rotunda, which houses the museum's Chinese collection. It was in the center of the room - "the place of honor," Dyson said - and was encased in glass atop a 4- foot-high brass stand.

The glass was shattered and the ball and an elaborate silver base were taken. The crystal ball - crafted in the 19th century and once owned by the last empress in China - was insured for $100,000 but worth at least three times more, said Dyson.

At 10 inches in diameter and weighing 55 pounds, it is the second-largest- known crystal ball in existence. The largest one is owned by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Egyptian statuette depicted the god Osiris and dates back to the second century B.C. A plexiglass cover was removed and the statute torn from a bolt that held it in place. It was insured for $15,000 but worth considerably more, the musuem said.

The statuette of Osiris is considered valuable even though it was not unique. David Silverman, the associate curator of the Egyptian department, said the statuette was in "extremely good condition."

But the theft of the crystal ball is what left the museum's staff in mourning, as one worker said. Dyson, who has worked at the museum for 34 years and served as director since 1982, was visibly shaken.

At a press conference in the museum near 33rd and Spruce streets, Dyson said he felt like a sacrificial victim from ancient Mexico whose heart had been cut out "and thrown down the stairs of the temple."

He characterized the break-in as an "outrageous desecration of an important institution."

The last time the museum suffered a theft was in 1981, when a gold-plated saw blade was removed from a display case, Dyson said. Although the piece was never recovered and no arrests were made, officials said the theft appeared to have been an "inside job."

As a result of that theft, the museum was closed for two weeks and a new security system installed. Dyson said the museum will review security, although he said he was confident the state-of-the-art system did not fail.

As with all thefts of art works, the chances of recovering the two pieces are hard to predict. Since the statuette is not unique, it is quite possible it could be sold without attracting attention, Dyson said.

The crystal ball, however, poses a different problem. Tyson said it is so unique that unless a private buyer is found, its sale will be virtually impossible.

"There's no way you can hide this," he said. "There's no way you can place it in the art market."

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