Reporting Bob Roberts
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Updated 06/20/12 – 4:41 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — The Polish Museum of America in the city’s Noble Square neighborhood is about to get back more than 100 stolen exhibits worth about $5 million.
As WBBM Newsradio’s Brandis Friedman reports, the FBI recovered the 120 artifacts from a Chicago home.
Included among the artifacts are rare 18th and 19th century documents and correspondence — including letters signed by President Abraham Lincoln and President Thomas Jefferson — rare prints and sketches, military medals and World War II-era Nazi propaganda.
The common thread among all the items is references to Poles.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Brandis Friedman reports
Coin and antiques dealer Harlan Berk told CBS 2′s Roseanne Tellez one of the documents is a letter from Thomas Jefferson, discussing how to finance the U.S. government.
“Maybe we should send it to the Republicans and Democrats to figure something out,” Berk said.
He noted the Polish Museum had the letter because it mentioned a Revolutionary War veteran from Poland. The letter is valued at more than $400,000.
Antiques dealer Dennis Forgue said the sellers told them they found the items in their Northwest Side basement, but something didn’t add up.
“I was skeptical that they didn’t fit the owners that brought the stuff in. They were just far too important to have just appeared out of nowhere,” he said.
Forgue traced the items to the Polish Museum of America at 984 N. Milwaukee Av., where officials knew the items had been missing since the 1980s.
The FBI said the items disappeared from the museum sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, but no one has been charged with the thefts, because the statute of limitations has expired.
Museum President Maria Ciesla said when she got a call that the missing artifacts had been found, she was breathless.
“I couldn’t breathe, because we were hoping against hope that someday this would all show up,” she said.
But Forgue – who alerted the FBI – kept buying up artifacts, so the sellers didn’t get suspicious.
When it was determined the statute of limitations had run out on charges for the stolen artifacts, the investigation turned into more of a recovery operation.
Ciesla said her favorite in the collection is a series of letters signed by various presidents.
“It talks about Polish people and Polish topics, but you’re talking John Quincy Adams, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson,” she said. “What our staff is saying is that they look at these documents, and what has been returned to us, they all have goosebumps.”
The FBI estimates the total value of the artifacts at approximately $5 million.
Officials said the people who were selling the artifacts were simply tenants in a building once owned by the mother of a former curator.