The depressing trend of thefts from California Gold Rush museums continues, doubtless driven by the high price of gold ($1,693 an ounce as of yesterday). The latest victim is the Oakland Museum of California. Early Monday morning, January 7th, a thief broke into the closed museum through a locked door on an outdoor garden. He then made his way to the second floor exhibit through an emergency exit door and stole one artifact: a Gold Rush-era jewel box made out of California gold and gold-veined quartz. (A second artifact, a scale used to weigh gold, valued at around $2,000, was taken but did not leave the premises. Curators found it elsewhere in the museum.)
The jewelry box was in a plexiglass display case rigged with an alarm. A security guard heard the alarm and saw the theft on the surveillance video, but he was in another part of the museum and the burglar got away before the police arrived.
The beautiful piece is one of the greatest treasures of the museum’s extensive 1.8 million-object permanent collection and is worth at least $800,000. The museum hasn’t released the exact monetary value because the artifact hasn’t been appraised in years and its historical value far eclipses its market price.
The historic jewelry box, was made between 1869 and 1878 by A. Andrews, a San Francisco goldsmith, and is signed. It is made of California gold, and features a rectangular moulded top and base that rests on four feet formed of four miniature female figures depicting allegorical California. The artifact is seven inches in height; nine inches on length; and seven inches in depth. The top pilasters and mouldings are of veined gold quartz in tones of grey and cream with veining of gold. The interior of the top is recessed and engraved in full relief with scene of the early days of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads, mounted Native Americans, herds of buffalo, and a train of cars. The gold quartz is cut and set in mosaic fashion in the top of the lid, exterior and the sides are gold veined quartz.
It was reportedly commissioned by a California pioneer as an anniversary present to his wife. It’s a one of a kind object, the epitome of a California artifact in design, material, workmanship and ownership history. The Oakland Museum of California is dedicated to the art, history and natural history of California, and this piece qualifies on every score.
The museum’s insurer is offering a $12,000 reward for the safe recovery of the jewelry box. (People involved in the theft in any capacity, before, during or after, cannot claim the reward.) The thief is going to have a hard time selling it because it is so recognizable. Museum officers fear that the thief plans to melt the box down for its sheer gold value.
The last time the jewelry box was stolen (it has a bit of a record, I’m sad to say) was in 1978. The thief sold it intact, thankfully, and it eventually made its way back to the museum in 1985 when an art appraiser found it and returned it after he realized it had been stolen.
The museum has been a more recent target of theft as well. This is the second burglary at the museum in two months. The last break-in also happened on a Monday, on November 12th, 2012. Gold nuggets and other artifacts were the target that time. Again the alarms went off and the police arrived within three minutes of the guards’ call to 911, but again the thief was faster than they were. Based on surveillance video, authorities believe both burglaries were done by the same man.
The museum is asking that anyone with information contact the Oakland Police Department’s Major Crimes Section at (510) 238-3951 or the tip line at 855-TIPS-247. You can also text TIP OAKLANDPD to 888777.
Meanwhile the museum is beefing up its security, already markedly beefed up after the November break-in, and has hired a security consulting firm to see what else they can do to take the bullseye off their back.