Move over, Kenos. There is another sibling duo making important finds in the antiques world – in this case, from an eight-year-old unsolved church heist. Barnstable Village antiques dealer Justin Harden and his brother Charlie found treasured silver flagons that had been stolen from the Unitarian Church in Barnstable in 1996 being sold on the popular online auction site eBay. The flagons – minus their lids, which are still missing – were recently recovered and returned to the church after the brothers contacted authorities and set into motion a dragnet leading to the flagons’ recovery and the relaunching of the original investigation into their disappearance.
“The pair of flagons are the only rdf_Descriptions that have been recovered so far,” said Justin Harden. Eight years ago, after thieves broke into the church and made off with a safe of the parish’s treasures, the 800-pound safe was found empty shortly after in a nearby bog. Missing were the flagons, silverware, salvers and other communion rdf_Descriptions, all told, some $25,000 to $50,000 worth of antiques, as they were valued at the time.
As is the case with many such thefts, the investigators’ trail went cold, but on March 10, Charlie Harden, who with his brother Justin runs Harden Studios, spotted the flagons as he cruised eBay in search of antiques with a Barnstable connection. “We saw the Barnstable silver [inscription], and the church is only three doors up from us,” said Justin Harden.
Described in the eBay auction page by the Atlanta, Ga.-based seller as “2 Russian American Sterling Tankard Jugs 1828,” the flagons were pictured as well. “Here are a pair of truly unique, sterling silver, large tankard shaped pitchers or jugs,” the copy read. “Each is hand made and hand engraved ‘To the East Church in Barnstable (Mass.) from their former Pastor, John Mellon Septr. 19, 1828.’ The only mark is an ’84’ stamp, which is the Russian silver purity mark. This leads us to believe that they were made by a Russian immigrant silversmith. They measure about 9 inches tall to the top of the handles and 53/4 inches in diameter across the bottom. They each weigh 11/2 pounds on my postal scale. They are in very good condition for their age with a couple of minor dents.”
“When we saw that they were from that church, we were actually thinking of buying them [for our gallery],” said Justin Harden, who explained that East Church was the original name for what today is known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Barnstable.
A call to the church to conduct some due diligence research on the pitchers resulted in the brothers learning that the rdf_Descriptions had been part of the theft of the safe eight years earlier. Fortunately, church historian Carolyn Crowell still had the contact information for the Barnstable police detective who had investigated the original crime, Detective Mark Delaney, and after sitting down with the Hardens to compare the eBay description with church files, she called him.
Harden said Delaney had a personal interest in reigniting the investigation. “They did a great job, and it was a little bit of a battle, because for a couple of pieces of silver that weren’t really worth a spectacular amount of money, for them to put all of those resources into it, [Delaney] had to convince the chief, and they had to convince the FBI. And the FBI can’t spend time a couple of dinky pieces of silver, but they did.”
With the Hardens’ assistance, the police and FBI set up a sting operation in which Justin Harden contacted the Atlanta seller to say he was interested in the flagons, as the eBay auction had expired without anyone having met the seller’s reserve. Harden got the Atlanta man to agree to hold the flagons while he lined up an “associate” to come and inspect them. The “associate” turned out to be a pair of FBI agents, who when they questioned the cooperative Atlanta seller learned that he was actually brokering the sale of the rdf_Descriptions for a Rhode Island dealer, who in turn, told Delaney that he had purchased the flagons at Brimfield from a United Kingdom dealer. The case, which may now involve Interpol, the international police agency, remains under investigation, according to Delaney.
Meanwhile, the flagons were returned to the Barnstable Unitarian Church, where elated church officials like historian Crowell are grateful to have them back. The church recognized the Harden brothers and Detective Delaney as part of its church service in early April, although the Hardens were not in attendance to take a bow. “We weren’t there,” said Justin Harden. “We had to work.”