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Four days before Christmas in 2017, a clay thumb vanished from the Franklin Institute, a science and technology museum in Philadelphia. It originally belonged to a sculpture of a cavalryman on loan from Xi’an, China — one of thousands of clay soldiers created in the third century BCE for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Immediately, the museum launched a search for the disappeared digit.
Now, with help from the FBI, the thumb and hand have been reunited. The bizarre heist took place during a festive evening at the Franklin Institute — its “Ugly Sweater Party” on December 21, which was designed to attract new visitors to the museum over the holidays. (Ironically, the museum also offers interactive entertainment in the form of an “escape room.”) During the party, the door to the Terracotta Warriors exhibition was closed to the public, the lights were turned off, and a rope was placed outside the entrance.
But according to an FBI affidavit recently filed in federal court, those measures weren’t sufficient to keep out even the most harebrained of intruders. At 9:11 pm, according to FBI Special Agent Jacob B. Archer (who previously investigated violent crimes and drug trafficking), a twentysomething in a green sweater and Phillies hat sneaked into the closed exhibition with two friends. According to surveillance footage described in the affidavit, the intruder gazed up at the statues, using his cell phone as a flashlight.
Then the man in the green sweater took a selfie. He “stepped up onto a platform supporting one of the Terracotta Warriors, placed his arm around that sculpture, and took a photograph of himself,” Archer reported. The theft occurred two minutes later, at 9:19pm. He “put his hand on the left hand of the Cavalryman” and “appeared to break something off from the Cavalryman’s left hand and put it in his left front pocket.”
The thumb thief, later identified as 24-year-old Michael Rohana, made his fatal mistake when he told the story excitedly to his friends. He even sent one of them a Snapchat image. After that, Special Agent Arthur, who is assigned to the FBI’s Art Crime Team, tracked Rohana down in Bear, Delaware. In front of his father, Rohana admitted that he had stashed the thumb in his desk drawer.
The thumb, according to the affidavit, was estimated to be worth about $5,000. A US attorney decided to charge Rohana with three violations: theft of a major artwork from a museum, concealment of major artwork stolen from a museum, and — because he carried the thumb across the Delaware border in a white minivan — interstate transportation of stolen property. Rohana was arrested and released on $15,000 bail, on the condition that he hand over his passport, consent to drug testing, and refrain from leaving the country before trial. Keep that in mind the next time you decide to take a selfie with a priceless statue.
Though Rohana’s thumb thievery maybe one of the most blatant acts of artistic destruction perpetrated in pursuit of a viral self-portrait, it is by no means the first. In 2015, two tourists in the Italian town of Cremona smashed part of an 18th-century sculpture while climbing on it to take a selfie; and in 2016 a tourist in Lisbon toppled a 16th-century sculpture of a Portuguese king while angling for a selfie. Even Yayoi Kusama, queen of the #artselfie, fell victim to the trend when, in February 2017, a visitor to the Hirshhorn Museum inadvertently smashed one of her spotted pumpkins.
Ten elegant examples of terracotta warriors continue to stand watch at the Franklin Institute until March 4.