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Ancient ax returned to Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy after vanishing in 1990s

A drawing of the ancient monolithic ax. John Bergman-McCool

A centuries-old Native American ax that vanished decades ago from the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy in Andover has resurfaced, but it’s still a mystery how the artifact went missing in the first place.

The prep school said the piece, which archaeologists call a monolithic ax, was recently returned to the museum by collector John Morgan of Indiana, who bought it in 2014 and “fully cooperated in its return” once he learned of its history.

The ax and other objects of the Mississippian culture, which dates back to roughly 1400, were excavated at the Etowah and Little Egypt sites in Georgia in the 1920s by Warren K. Moorehead, then-director of the Peabody, Phillips Academy said in a statement late last month.


Ryan Wheeler, director of the Peabody Institute, thanked Moorehead for restoring the artifact and Andover police and FBI agents “who tracked down the missing objects,” the statement said.

Peabody staff initially discovered that the ax and other Native American artifacts had disappeared from the collection in the 1990s, according to the school.

Wheeler said Wednesday that Morgan purchased the ax from Kentucky-based Davis Artifacts.

“We are not sure how the ax (and other artifacts from the Etowah site and other sites in Maine) left here, though we believe it happened in the 1980s,” Wheeler said in an e-mail. “The last evidence we have of the ax being here is in 1976 when it was photographed in an exhibit case.”

Wheeler said Peabody staff “searched our records and found no evidence that it (or other artifacts) were legally sold, transferred, or gifted to private individuals or other museums. The story that we have heard from the collecting community is that someone that worked here sold the objects, though we don’t have any names or sense of who that was.”


Wheeler said two engraved shell disks and a ceramic smoking pipe are still missing, and the museum hopes media attention “helps facilitate” their return.

“Whoever took these things back in the day, they were a bit of a connoisseur,” Wheeler said by telephone, adding that appraisers have valued the ax at $450,000.

There was one high-profile theft at the museum in the 1980s.

In 1988, George B. McLaughlin, then a 48-year-old Oxford resident, was sentenced to four years’ probation for taking items from several New England museums, including items from the Peabody, the Associated Press reported.

McLaughlin didn’t sell the artifacts but kept them himself, prosecutors said, according to the AP. Prosecutors said McLaughlin cooperated with the FBI in returning the artifacts to their owners, the AP reported.

“It is unclear if Mr McLaughlin was involved in the monolithic axe going missing,” Wheeler wrote. “Our former director Jim Bradley believes there were multiple incidents. I would tend to agree, as the objects targeted were different and our recent recoveries have mostly retained catalog numbers.

McLaughlin declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday.

A break in the ax case came in January 2018, when Rachels, of Georgia, contacted Wheeler after buying a spatulate stone celt weapon that also originated at the Etowah site and that was among the items missing from the Peabody collection, the school’s statement said.

Andover police and the FBI Art Crime Team in Boston used information from that recovery to “effect the return of a missing shell disk and eventually track down the monolithic ax,” the release said.


Kristen Setera, an FBI spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the bureau is “pleased to be able to return these rare, valuable artifacts to their rightful owner through the assistance of the FBI’s art crime team and their network of contacts in the art and cultural arena.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.