Keen-eyed archeologist spots stolen Inuit figurines

Two one-thousand-year-old Inuit figurines stolen from the Canadian Museum of Civilization turned up recently at the Isaacs Innuit Art Gallery in Toronto.


IQALUIT — One man’s amazing memory has led to the return of two stolen Inuit figurines to the Canadian Museum of Civilisation.
During the 1970s, someone took the tiny carvings, estimated to be about 1,000 years old, from the museum.

But no one at the museum one even noticed that they were gone until Doug Stenton, the executive director of the Inuit Heritage Trust in Iqaluit, spotted them as he was flipping through a Toronto art gallery’s promotional brochure.

The two figurines were pictured on its cover.

Embarrassed gallery owner

Av Isaacs, owner of the Isaacs Innuit Art Gallery, said he was “embarrassed” and “annoyed” when he learned that the two pieces — which he had bought at an auction house several years earlier — had been stolen.

“It never entered my mind that they were stolen,” Isaacs said. “In our business, when you deal with antiquities, you really want to know the provenance.”

Isaacs has since returned the two figurines to the museum.

But until he learns the identity of the person who originally put those artifacts up for sale, he stands to lose out on his investment.

Isaacs had planned to sell the two Thule figurines for $4000.

Bob McGhee, the curator of Arctic archeology at the Canadian Musuem of Civilisation, was also embarassed when he learned that two of the museum’s pieces had gone missing for more than 20 years.

But he’s not surprised that this theft went unnoticed for so long.

McGhee explained that the museum has a couple of hundred similar figurines in storage, so it’s hard to know at any one time whether they’re all there.

Lax security

He added that security at the museum was more lax in the 1970s, when two pieces apparently went missing, so theft was a much more common occurrence.

“It’s much harder to do that, than it was in those days,” McGhee said.

The incident has encouraged the museum to redo its inventory and take a closer look at its security measures, but McGhee remains astounded that anyone managed to spot the figurines and match them up.

For his part, Stenton says a light went off in his brain when he saw the photo of the two pieces.

He says he was sure that he’d seen them somewhere before, so he began searching through his books until he was able to match them up with photos of finds made by Father Guy Mary-Rousselière near Pond Inlet — artifacts that were supposed to be at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation.

Stenton’s hunch was later confirmed by the fact that the museum’s inventory numbers still appeared on the two stolen pieces.

Stenton had also paid close attention to the sale of the two figurines, because it’s unusual to find such ancient artifacts from the Canadian Arctic on the market. Most are already in museums, or awaiting excavation.

Alaska sells antiquities for money

In fact, most Arctic antiquities for sale originally come from Alaska. There, some native groups are known to excavate and sell ancient archeological items to make money.

Stenton said that this practice has been extremely rare in Canada, although Nunavut, with more than 6,000 recorded archeological sites, is archeologically rich.

Some people disturb sites out of greed, but Stenton said that most just don’t realize how important it is to leave these places intact.

“The whole thing about archeology and archeological sites is that we need to know where things are found,” he said. “As soon as anything is disturbed, the information is gone.”

Stenton cautions against disturbing sites. Instead, he suggests noting the location of any ancient find, photographing it if possible, and then notifying either Nunavut’s department of culture or the Inuit Heritage Trust.

And while this “cultural property” of the North is important to understand, Stenton said it’s also illegal to dig up a site without a permit.

“If you’re not authorized to have access to a site, you’re not supposed to disturb it,” he said.

Nunavut is reviewing legislation that protects such sites and the artifacts they contain.

Some countries, such as Mexico, levy sizeable fines and impose harsh jail sentences on anyone who tries to walk off with an ancient piece of history.

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