An 18th-century relic returned to museum
An elaborately carved French and Indian War-era powder horn stolen from a Massachusetts museum 65 years ago is back on display thanks to James Richardson, curator emeritus of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association's Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Mass., put the horn on display Wednesday, 254 years to the day from when it was engraved on July 2, 1760.
Mr. Richardson, 77, who retired as Carnegie curator in 2006 and as a professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh three years later, found the horn in 1950 as a kid growing up in Longmeadow, Mass., south of Springfield, and had it all these years without realizing it was stolen.
When he was about 11 or 12, he said, he loved to scour through the town dump with his friends, looking for unusual items. His mother had always enjoyed hunting for antiques and he got the bug, too, at an early age.
One day in 1950, while hunting through the dump with his sister and some friends, he came across a trunk of items on fire, some of which had spilled onto the ground. He said he kicked around in the burning leaves and discovered the horn, inscribed with the owner's name, Jonathan Smead, the date he commissioned the engraving, and intricate carvings of deer, fish, mermaids and ships. Powder horns, generally made from cow, ox or buffalo horn, were containers for gunpowder, which could be dispensed from the narrow end, while the soldier could refill through the wider opening.
He realized what it was and kept it.
As he grew up, Mr. Richardson developed a deep interest in military history, particularly regarding the French and Indian War. At 16, he helped excavate Fort William Henry, a British fort in New York best known as the focal point of the classic 1826 historical novel "The Last of the Mohicans" by James Fenimore Cooper.
As Mr. Richardson progressed in his career as an anthropologist, he also built a collection of military and historic artifacts. Among them was Smead's horn, along with some other horns. But he recently decided to downsize, selling his house and some of his possessions in preparation for moving into a condo. As a member of the advisory board of the Fort Pitt Museum, he contacted museum director Alan Gutchess for his advice about selling the Smead horn.
Such horns are valuable, although Mr. Richardson didn't want to discuss how much an appraisal determined his was worth. But using old publications that included drawings, Mr. Gutchess tracked down the fact that the horn had been part of the Deerfield collection.
Suzanne Flynt, the curator at Deerfield, told Mr. Richardson that it was stolen in 1949 along with two other scrimshawed horns.
Mr. Richardson opted to return the horn, saying it was the "ethical and moral thing to do." He gave it to the museum in March.
As a curator himself, he said, he knows that items often turn up missing when an institution does an inventory and how difficult they are to track down.
In addition to his former position as chief curator at the Carnegie Museum, where he was in charge of the vast anthropology collections, he has a wealth of experience on the collection committees of the Heinz History Center, Peabody Museum at Yale University and the Martha's Vineyard Museum.
"I know the value of these sorts of things and how important they are to a collection," said Mr. Richardson, who splits his time between Martha's Vineyard and Pittsburgh. "They're sort of like orphans."
Ms. Flynt was away last week and unavailable for comment, but the museum is obviously grateful to have its horn back.
When the horn was stolen, the museum had been closed for several years because of World War II, and it had no curator or serious security system. No one knows who walked off with the horn or how it ended up in a dump, but it had been in the museum since 1880 and has special value.
The museum has a dozen other powder horns, but none of them as expertly engraved as the Smead horn.
It was made at the British fort of Crown Point, where Jonathan Smead, a Deerfield resident, had been serving with a militia building the fort in 1760.
Smead was a landowner, an elected town official and father of 12 children, Ms. Flynt told a local newspaper last week.
"The artistry on the horn is magnificent," Ms. Flynt said. "It must have been done by an artist-soldier who had a lot of experience doing this sort of thing and was serving in the militia with John Smead. This person clearly knew how to engrave."
The horn is part of an exhibit that also includes Smead's carved bone-head cane.
This time, the horn is in a sealed case with a security alarm.