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Terracotta warriors (image via Wikimedia Commons)

News that the thumb of a 2,000-year-old Chinese terracotta warrior was stolen by a guest of the Franklin Institute’s annual Ugly Sweater Party has become the least of the Philadelphia museum’s worries. The theft, which occurred in December 2017, resulted in three felony charges for Michael Rohana. Two public defenders representing the Delaware man are now petitioning the court for information about the museum’s security protocols and correspondences.

According to a February 27 filing reviewed by the Courier Post, Rohana and two other guests were able to enter the darkened exhibit space housing the warrior more than two hours after the boozy holiday party began.

“Needless to say, when Mr. Rohana in his ugly green sweater entered the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor exhibit to explore it, he was intoxicated,” the filing states.

The lawyers would like access to the museum’s security records to help investigate whether or not Rohana’s actions were “more consistent with vandalism than with the specific intent to steal.”

When the thumb-napping story broke (pun intended) in early 2018, Chinese officials urged American authorities to “severely punish those who have done [this]” in an interview between the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relic Exchange Center’s director and the state-run Chinese newspaper, Beijing Youth Daily.

The 209 BCE statue from the Qin Dynasty is valued at $4.5 million and is considered a priceless piece of China’s cultural heritage. The life-size statues were originally built to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The site where they were discovered by a Shaanxi province farmer in 1974 is now a United Nations world heritage site.

The de-thumbed warrior in question was part of a traveling exhibit that was scheduled to run at the Franklin Institute from September 30, 2017, to March 4, 2018. It included 10 sculptures from the Shaanxi mausoleum site.

Although the alleged theft occurred on December 21, museum employees didn’t notice the missing digit until January 8, when the FBI Art Crime Unit was called in to investigate. Surveillance footage helped lead to Rohana’s arrest.

Court records say that “when asked if he had anything in his possession he wanted to turn over to the FBI, Mr. Rohana stated he had a finger from a museum.” Rohana retrieved the thumb from his desk drawer in his bedroom.

In addition to security footage, the public defenders also want a subpoena to access the museum’s record of alcohol sales the night of the Ugly Sweater Party, saying evidence of intoxication “may show that Mr. Rohana did not have the intent to commit the offense.”

The request comes because, the lawyers say, the museum has not complied with earlier requests for multiple records, including communications between the Franklin Institute and Chinese authorities.

Federal prosecutors have rebuffed these attempts, saying that the case “is not about any alleged negligence by the Franklin Institute. Nor is it about any accidental damage to objects exhibited at the Franklin Institute.”

Opposing access to security records, Assistant US Attorney K.T. Newton clarified the government’s position that “this case is about [Rohana’s] guilt or innocence.” She added: “This is nothing more than a cover for the use of this information for jury nullification.” (Jury nullification defines the concept in which jurors exonerate a defendant on the grounds of opposing a law because they think it is unjust and not because they believe the accused has actually broken it.)

The severity of Rohana’s prospective punishment also hinges on the thumb’s market value, which prosecutors estimate is $150,000. The defense says that this number is immaterial because the Chinese government owns the terracotta warriors, which cannot be sold; furthermore, they contend that market value for the whole statue cannot prove “the market value of the individual thumb.”

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

6 replies on “After Breaking Thumb off Terracotta Warrior, Man Points Finger at Museum”

  1. Did the defendant break into the room or was it unlocked? If it was unlocked then I would think the museum would share the culpability. Having a Christmas party with free flowing booze seems to be an invitation for something like this to happen.

    1. Franklin Institute is pitched as a child’s museum primarily though out their pamphlets and so on. It’s balance sheet isn’t really that glorious. I can imagine those guys are doing everything they can to drum up their patrons. However, the downside is they can’t act as professionals to the requirements of doing some of these ‘parties’. Not looking good here as at least I think this paint them as amateurish. In other words, can we blame the Chinese thinking Americans are all good fellows? Should they shoulder part of the blame?

      I think in any given cases, if you look hard enough, there are too many factors one can find to point our fingers. The museum should pay a handsome bill for their negligent behavior to insurance companies. Not to mention this story will become a joke in museum’s inner circle of administrators and managers. In the end, it is this individual who decide how to behave. If we are to let a 25 years walk, we might as well consider 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, … right? Where do we draw the line?

      1. I just read that the trial ended as a mistrial. In the closing words of the lawyer for the defense …Catherine C. Henry and Nancy MacEoin, argued Rohana had been inappropriately charged under a law designed to prosecute intricately planned museum heists, not what they described as a case of youthful vandalism.

        “These charges were made for art thieves — think like Ocean’s Eleven or Mission: Impossible,” Henry said in closing statements to jurors on Friday. Rohana “wasn’t in ninja clothing sneaking around the museum. He was a drunk kid in a bright green ugly Christmas sweater.”

        Granted, a 25 year old is not a kid but the prosecution charged the man with a Federal crime with the possibility of a 10 year sentence in a federal pen. Inviting people to a holiday ‘ugly sweater party’ hosted at and by the museum and selling tickets online with plenty of booze available for purchase sounds like a recipe for disaster. I hope both the defendant and the museum learned their lessons well.

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