University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

M.L. Baker and the Case of the Stolen Jewels

March 17, 2011

While researching the large collection of Mary Louise Baker’s archaeological drawings in the Penn Museum’s archives, I came across a beautiful watercolor of Egyptian jewelry excavated in Nubia, 1907-1911.  I found myself drawn to Baker’s archaeological illustrations after learning of their conservation treatment by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, and after creating my own drawings of artifacts as an intern in the conservation department.

This drawing is a wonderfully economical depiction of two short gold necklaces, a ring, and a long gold and amethyst necklace with two lions coiled around two golden bracelets.  M. L. Baker creates a light source on the right side of the picture, casting gentle shadows from the gold pieces and reflections through the amethyst.

Watercolor drawing of gold and amethyst jewels, M.L. Baker

It was brought to my attention by the Archives staff that these pieces of jewelry were stolen from the museum almost exactly one hundred years ago.

Delving into the Director’s archived book of correspondences, I found a frantic telegram from the then-Director, George B. Gordon to then-President and major patron of the museum, Eckley B. Coxe, Jr.  The message, dated March 9th, 1911 declares, “Museum burglarized yesterday. Egyptian jewellery taken.  Detectives engaged. Writing particulars.”

According to his letters, Gordon discovered the theft himself at a quarter before four o’clock on March 8th, 1911 and believed the incident took place between one and two o’clock that day. In further correspondence with Eckley B. Coxe, Jr., Gordon wrote that police and the Bureau of Detectives were on the case, and that descriptions of the stolen artifacts were sent to various pawn brokers in Philadelphia and other cities.

Subsequent notes chart plans for increased security, as Gordon summoned the Cruse-Kemper Co. from Ambler, PA to install “single barbed wire in some of our hedges on the grounds at the corner of 33rd & Spruce Streets.” In a meeting of the Museum’s Board of Managers on March 17th, the director reported the burglarized jewelry and recommended that “grills be placed on all the windows and that one additional man be engaged to patrol the floor.”

A century later, the case of the Egyptian jewels remains unsolved.  Despite this, we are fortunate to still be able to access the essence of these artifacts through M.L. Baker’s beautifully documented illustration—a valuable piece of art in and of itself.

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