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Artifacts, stolen decades ago and sold online, return to RI

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Indian arrowheads stolen from a museum in the late 1980s, traded for wine a few years ago and put up for sale last year were returned to Rhode Island on Wednesday.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents tracked down the 34 white- quartz projectiles in an eBay.com advertisement, but the Washington sellers claimed they didn’t know the artifacts were stolen.

The unidentified Washington couple told investigators they traded wine for the collection in 2017 with an unknown man who was a frequent Craigslist.com seller.

Jason Langlais, the great-great-grandson of amateur archaeologist Harry Wheeler, who dug up the points between 1928 and 1950, said he was ecstatic to see them returned to Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum.

“These belonged to people who were able to survive our harsh winters using sticks, stones and bones,” Langlais said. “This is what fed their families, and kept them from going cold in the wintertime.”

Langlais said the points are up to 3,000 years old – predating even the bow – and used as part of a dart that was thrown at targets.

The sale of antiquities from around the world has been super-charged into a business worth “hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to investigators.

Bryan Lewis, a special agent for Rhode Island’s Homeland Security office, said the agency is trying to meet the challenge presented by social media and the internet.

“We’re able to discover where [the antiquities] move, who receives them and the exchange of money or goods,” Lewis said.

In the Wheeler collection case, the exchange involved a box of wine, according to investigators, who have tracked down a long list of priceless items over the years.

“A couple of years ago we had a mummy case that was discovered by [Homeland Security] in a garage in Brooklyn New York,” special agent Michael Polouski said.

The Rhode Island theft was first revealed on July 27, 1987, when Haffenreffer Museum assistant curator Thierry Gentis “discovered that a collection of artifacts, including [the arrowheads], were missing from storage,” according to federal documents.

The new lead came last year after an unidentified Haffenreffer curator noticed the eBay listing for “museum quality” points with documentation indicating they were connected to the museum.

Polouski said not everything stolen in 1987 has been recovered and the investigation remains open.

Send your story ideas to Target 12 Investigator Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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