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$5M in stolen artifacts returned to Polish Museum — decades later

The FBI announces return more than 120 stolen artifacts Polish Museum America. Wednesday June 20 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

The FBI announces the return of more than 120 stolen artifacts to the Polish Museum of America. Wednesday, June 20, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 23, 2012 7:30AM

Polish Museum of America officials can finally breathe a sigh of relief after the FBI announced Wednesday the return of more than 120 stolen artifacts, worth an estimated $5 million, to the Near West Side museum.

They were recovered last year at a house on the Northwest Side, but no charges were filed because the statute of limitations had passed, among other reasons, the FBI said.

The artifacts, which include 300-year-old documents, military medals, rare artwork and Nazi propaganda from World War II, had been missing from the museum since the 1970s or 1980s. Documents in the collection featured signatures from Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Polish Revolutionary War heroes.

“I couldn’t catch my breath when I got the phone call,” said Maria Ciesla, president of the museum at 984 N. Milwaukee. “This was something we had dreamed of for so many years.”

The FBI said the items were found in the basement of a home where a curator from the museum used to live. Tenants of the home had found them and sold them to a dealer, who later determined they had belonged to the museum.

But the FBI said no criminal charges would be filed because they could not determine who took the items nor the date they were taken. But they knew the five-year statute of limitations had expired.

Ciesla said she expects an exhibit with the recovered artifacts to be forthcoming.

“The dollar and cultural values are huge any time you see this kind of thing,” said Charles Johnston, a special agent with the FBI’s Art Crime Team. “And the United States is the largest consumer of stolen goods in world.”

The Art Crime Team has recovered an estimated 2,600 items, worth about $150 million, since its inception in 2004, officials said.

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