A hero's treasure comes home at last

Found: Decades after the theft, the FBI returns to the Naval Academy a gilded sword presented to the captain of the Monitor.

January 13, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Missing, 1931.

Scrawled in pencil on the worn corner of a 3-by-5-inch note card, the notation is the museum's only inventory record of the mysterious theft of the U.S. Naval Academy's Worden Sword. One word, one date - preserved in the depths of one of the academy's old filing cabinets labeled "personal swords."

It wasn't much. But it was all the evidence FBI agents needed when they phoned academy museum curator Jim Cheevers recently to inquire about the disappearance of the Civil War-era sword seven decades ago.

"They told me up front they thought they had found it," said Cheevers, curator for the past 36 years. "My first thought was, `Is this for real?'"

Until that November phone call, Cheevers said he had assumed the worst: that the legendary sword named for Union naval hero John Lorimer Worden had been damaged irreparably or melted down and sold for a large sum.

What really happened, Cheevers never could have guessed.

Decades after it was lifted from its glass case on a wall in Bancroft Hall, the sword somehow fell prey to a trio of antiques dealers who staged phony appraisals for the PBS television series Antiques Roadshow. The dealers were convicted on various counts of fraud in 2001 and 2002, but it was not until last fall that the investigation led FBI officials to the academy's sword.

Because agents continue to search for a number of culturally valuable relics, the FBI declined to give the name of the sword's most recent owner or details about its original theft.

For Cheevers and others at the academy, however, all that mattered was its safe return.

In a formal ceremony held yesterday morning in the academy's museum, the FBI turned over the Tiffany & Co. sword - in perfect condition - to its rightful home.

Cheevers could not hide his enthusiasm for the relic, displayed for the event on a cloth-covered table flanked by its belt and scabbard.

"I've seen many other swords from Tiffany's but this one is the creme de la creme," said Cheevers, calling the return one of the most significant moments in the museum's history.

Wearing white gloves, Cheevers ran his fingers over the sword's elaborate design elements, which include miniature reliefs of the Roman god Neptune and a ship, decorative oak leaves and a black-and-gold embroidered belt.

Although the academy's museum boasts glass cases filled with presentation swords, Cheevers said the 37-inch Worden Sword is highly valued not only for its design, but because it's inspired by a real-life war hero.

Celebrated as the first naval officer in history to lead a steam-driven, ironclad ship into battle, Worden began his naval career as a midshipman in 1834. In 1861, en route from delivering secret orders to federal troops in Florida, Worden was captured by Confederates and held as a prisoner of war for seven months in Montgomery, Ala.

When he returned to New York, the lieutenant was appointed commander of the USS Monitor, which he led in a four-hour clash with the CSS Virginia (formerly called Merrimack). The battle ended in a stalemate, but Worden - who temporarily lost his sight in the fighting - was given the ornate sword by his home state of New York for his bravery during the encounter. After the war, Worden was appointed as the seventh superintendent of the Naval Academy and promoted to rear admiral.

Worden died in 1897, and 15 years later, his family donated the sword to the Naval Academy. Legend has it that the relic was discovered missing when a master-at-arms found its glass case lying in a pile of wood.

Although he did not attend yesterday's ceremony, Annapolis resident Robert L. Worden - a distant relative of the admiral and researcher of his family's history - said he plans to visit the museum as soon as possible to see the sword for the first time.

"I don't even know what it looks like," said Worden. "I remember my father taking us to see the exhibit at the academy and telling us about the theft. Seeing it will be really exciting."

Beginning today, the sword will be on display in the academy museum.

Yesterday, FBI Special Agent Jeffrey A. Lampinski spoke - albeit vaguely - about the sword's recovery to a rapt audience of more than three dozen people gathered there.

"These kinds of items belong to all of us and should be displayed here for us to enjoy," the Philadelphia-based agent said. In the past two years, FBI agents have recovered more than $85 million worth of cultural property, including an original copy of the Bill of Rights, he added.

Lampinski did little to end the mystery over exactly what had happened to the sword over the years, except to say that in 1989, a family that had had the sword since the 1930s contacted appraisers they had seen on television to offer it for sale.

He would not provide names of the family that sold the sword or the buyer, who he said returned it when told it was the property of the Navy.

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