CAMBRIDGE — For nearly 35 years, the 18th-century Chinese jade artwork was missing, stolen out of a display case at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum. On Tuesday, the precious object returned, the result of an investigation that stretched more than 8,000 miles, from the Midwest to a prestigious auction house in Hong Kong.
Worth an estimated $1.5 million and standing about a half-foot tall, the shimmering green jade censer, or incense burner, is from the Qing Dynasty and features two handles with carved dragons and a cover adorned by carved lions.
Bruce M. Foucart, Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge, said there is a suspect in the theft. He called the recovery of the object, so long after its disappearance, a significant development in ongoing efforts to track down missing art.
“It gives hope for stolen pieces of artwork, that they will resurface, because we’ll be able to track them down,” said Foucart.
The US Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, which eventually seized the jade, returned it to Harvard on Tuesday.
The object, donated to the museum in 1942, disappeared just after Thanksgiving 1979. Someone forced open a display case to steal it, according to reports at the time. It remained out of the public eye until 2009, when it popped up at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.
“It’s an important object, and it’s been gone a long time,” said Harvard Art Museums director Tom Lentz. “When things like this happen, you hope they reappear, but oftentimes they don’t.”
At the time of the theft, the censer was on display as part of a small show at the Fogg featuring works given to the museum by Harvard graduate Ernest B. Dane and his wife, Helen Pratt Dane. Suzannah Doeringer, then deputy director of the Fogg, called the jade “priceless,” and Robert Mowry, then curator of Oriental Art, told the Harvard Crimson that the “theft psychologically dampens everyone’s spirit in the museum.”
Investigators do not believe anybody at the museum had anything to do with the theft, Foucart said. The investigators determined that the object was moved to the Midwest after being taken from the Fogg, and they say it probably remained there for decades before being smuggled to South Korea. Next, the jade was brought to Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.
The object was being prepared for a fall 2009 Sotheby’s auction at a starting price of $500,000, but the private seller did not provide any documentation about the work’s ownership history.
That led Sotheby’s to run the censer through the Art Loss Register of London, which maintains an international database of more than 360,000 stolen, looted, disputed, or missing works from around the world.
The Art Loss Register notified the US government of the piece’s reemergence, and Homeland Security launched its investigation. Other government agencies, including the US attorney’s office and the Department of Justice, were involved in the process that led to the censer being turned over to Harvard. The case is being prosecuted by US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s Asset Forfeiture Unit.
Harvard officials said museum security has advanced since the days the censer was taken. The university is preparing to reopen the Harvard Art Museums complex, which includes the Fogg, this fall after a massive renovation and expansion, and the new facility will exceed security industry standards and professional guidelines, according to an official. For example, the facility employs an Integrated Security Program, including physical security, electronic security, access control system, comprehensive video surveillance, and specially trained personnel.
Last year, the Globe reported that Harvard had 300 missing items in the Art Loss Register. Harvard officials would not confirm that number.
Tuesday’s ceremony, held before curators, museum officials, and reporters, began with the censer, still in a wooden crate, being unpacked at Harvard. Karoline Mansur, assistant registrar for Harvard Art Museums, wore green gloves as she carefully unwrapped the jade object and placed in on a table.
“Voila,” she said after finishing.
The censer has three legs, an ornate top that can be removed, and round handles on either side. For now, it will remain in storage, to be examined by conservators and curators. That’s because the surprise return of the jade comes too close to the opening of the new Harvard Art Museums complex to give curators a chance to find a way to display the piece, Lentz said, but it will be put on view in the next few years.
“It’s been gone a long time,” Lentz said. “The field has advanced. We know a lot more about late jades now, so for us it’s a great opportunity to finally have the object back so we can study it in depth.”
Melissa Moy, associate curator of Chinese art for Harvard Art Museums, echoed those thoughts after watching the ceremony Tuesday.
“It’s probably every curator’s nightmare to see a piece disappear,” she said. “So we’re thrilled it has been returned safely and in one piece. It’s rare. It’s not the kind of piece that we could easily afford. It was listed for $500,000 but I think it could have gone for much, much more.”