Long-Missing Rare Glass Bottle Returning To Wistar Institute

PHILADELPHIA, PENN. — A piece of American history will be returning home.

A rare glass bottle made by Caspar Wistar, New Jersey’s first glassmaker who began the first successful glass factory in the American colonies, was in the Wistar Institute’s collection in Philadelphia until sometime after 1958 when it disappeared from the collection. It has been close by these last few years — at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it has been on loan.

The 8¾-inch-tall dark green bottle bears the initials of Richard Wistar, the eldest son of Caspar Wistar. It is one of only two known existing Caspar Wistar bottles with the “RW” seal; the other is in the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass. Caspar Wistar’s bottles were made of impure green glass using a formula in use since the Middle Ages. They were designed to resemble popular European bottles of the day.

“We’re entirely thrilled,” said Nina Long, the institute’s director of library services and archivist, also curator of the Wistar museum collections. Long noted that the bottle will remain on loan at the museum until 2014, with the institute now listed as its owner. New exhibition space is being opened up at the institute and the bottle may go on public view there next year, or it may be on extended loan to the museum, she said this week.

After investigating the theft of some unrelated artifacts for the institute, authorities found the bottle on loan to the museum in 2011, and a civil agreement was reached with the purported owner to return ownership to the institute.

The Wistar Institute is a cancer research center named for Caspar Wistar and founded in 1892 by his great-nephew General Isaac Jones Wistar. The institute is the repository for the Wistar museum archives, including items relating to the Wistarburgh glass factory that began in 1739 near Alloway, N.J.

Charles M. Oberly III, United States Attorney for the District of Delaware, and Edward J. Hanko, Special Agent in Charge, Philadelphia Field Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), recently announced the agreement reached to return the bottle.

The circa 1745–55 bottle was granted to the institute by Isaac Wistar in 1905. Cataloged in the Wistar inventory, the bottle was taken without permission after 1958. The bottle was said to have been purchased from an unclaimed storage locker sometime later and sold by various antiques dealers on several occasions.

Oberly said, “The return of this rare bottle to the Wistar Institute is the result of the joint efforts of this office and the FBI Art Crime Team. I commend all parties for their efforts in producing this positive outcome. Artifacts like this glass bottle are an important part of American history. I am pleased it can be returned to its rightful owner.”

David L. Hall, Assistant United States Attorney, Special Prosecutor, FBI Art Crime Team, investigated the case. Asked for advice to collectors who might find themselves in a similar situation, especially when thefts predate the Internet and national stolen art databases, Hall said, “It does make it harder and it’s not an uncommon problem. Sometimes long periods pass between the theft and the recovery; the best approach in terms of provenance research is to be proactive.”

For additional information, contact Oberly or Hall at 302-573-6277.                     —A. Valluzzo

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