Thieves wearing black hoodies, face masks and what appeared to be night vision goggles brazenly walked into the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa last Friday and stole millions of dollars’ worth of precious minerals. There were at least two men armed with weirdly historically appropriate pickaxes. It was just before 4:00 PM, in broad daylight, and the museum was still open. The robbers walked in, threatened the curator and guide who were the only two employees inside the museum at the time, and corralled them over to the other side of the building. They then ransacked the display cases, helping themselves to rare historic specimens of gold, gems and minerals.
They tried to steal the Fricot Nugget, 14 pounds of crystalline gold, the largest mass of it from the Gold Rush to survive intact and the most valuable piece in the museum. It’s not inside a display case that can be broken with a pickaxe, however; it’s kept inside an iron vault. When the thieves set off the alarm, the vault door started to close behind them while they were still inside. They just managed to make it out on time — one man had to slam into the closing door with his shoulder and fell out into the museum — but did not get their grubby mitts on the Fricot Nugget. The police responded to the alarm immediately, swarming the museum in force, but it was too late. The criminals had escaped with their loot.
The museum is closed until further notice so they can repair the display cases, doors and other areas damaged by the thieves. The estimated value of the objects is around two million dollars, but the precise figure won’t be known until Parks Department staff finishes taking inventory of what was stolen. The rarity of the pieces will hopefully keep the thieves from selling them off quickly. The more immediate danger is that they could melt down the gold making it unrecognizable. A blowtorch, a crucible and two minutes is all they’d need to make a generic puddle out of even the most unique specimen. Crystalline gold, of which the museum has several large, beautiful and rare pieces, is particularly easy to melt down since it’s basically a clump of flakes. That’s the reason large pieces are so rare today, because they were all melted down into bullion during the Gold Rush.
Police are investigating the possibility that this Gold Rush theft is linked in some way to the theft of Gold Rush gold from the Siskiyou County Courthouse in Yreka, California in February of this year. There too the criminals were men in masks, although they broke in to the courthouse in the middle of the night. Given the appeal of gold right now and the weakened security of public facilities hobbled by budget constraints, the two thefts could well be entirely unrelated.
The California Highway Patrol is in charge of the investigation. They ask that anyone who might know anything at all pertinent to the theft — witnesses who may have seen loiterers outside the museum around 4:00 PM, anybody who has been approached to buy precious gems, metals and minerals in raw form — call the California Highway Patrol – Central Division Investigative Services Unit at (559) 277-7250.
This is a hard blow to an institution that has not had an easy year. The California State Mining and Mineral Museum was one of 70 state parks slated for closure on July 1st due to budget cuts. That date was moved back a little when the state government gave the parks a few more weeks to find partners — non-profits, community organizations, concessions operators — to help defray the costs. The museum could not secure a partner. Instead they submitted a proposal that would staff the museum entirely with volunteers. That proposal was rejected because state parks must be staffed by state parks employees, even when there’s only two in charge of millions of dollars in gems and gold.
At the eleventh hour, the Parks Department revealed it had found a secret nest egg of $54 million it hasn’t reported to state budget officials. This allowed the museums without a partnership agreement to remain open for the time being. The sword of Damocles was still hanging over the Mining and Mineral Museum, however. Now they have to spend money they don’t have repairing the damage and sorting out what to do with the gaps in their collection. Even if the police do find and return the objects, the security issue is going to have to be addressed, but with what money?
It’s a shame because the museum really does seem like an extremely cool place. It’s in a picturesque setting at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and has a collection of more than 13,000 objects, from precious minerals to mining artifacts, collected from all over California and the world. The California State Gem and Mineral Collection dates to 1880 when it was first put on display at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. It was moved to Mariposa in 1983. The museum became a state park in 1999.
The Fricot Nugget joined the collection in 1943 when it was still in the Ferry Building. It was donated by Mrs. Marie Fricot Benton, daughter of Jules Fricot, a French immigrant who owned several mines and ranches in Grass Valley starting in the 1850s. The nugget was discovered at the Grit Mine in August of 1865. Nobody is quite sure what happened to it for a while after that until it was found in a safe deposit box in Angels Camp, California in 1943. Mrs. Benton donated it to the State Gem and Mineral Collection, then under the purview of the State Division of Mines, in her father’s memory.
There are some big, beautiful pictures of the museum, including its remarkable model gold mine and assay office, taken this May on Lucy D’Mot’s outstanding State Park Closures Trip blog. Geotripper has a gorgeous blog entry dedicated to the outstanding mineral specimens on display. Gem nerds (you know who you are), you have to click on that link.