Something wasn't quite right about the pewter flagon on the auction block in front of Donald Herr.
The antiques expert knew it was authentic, and the "1762" marking in front attested to its age. But something about the pitcher's feet -- tiny cherubs' heads -- jogged Herr's memory.
Normally, the flagon would have two feet in front and one in back to make the container easier to tilt forward for pouring Communion wine into goblets. But this flagon was different: It had one foot in front and two in back.
Just like a flagon that was stolen from the Historical Society of Frederick County 30 years earlier.
Herr rushed home to look at pictures of the stolen decanter. He had collected the images long ago while writing a book about pewter church antiques, and he found that the two flagons were identical, down to the dents and the initials of its creator, Johann Christoph Heyne, an 18th-century German craftsman in Lancaster, Pa.
That led to the flagon being returned this week to the historical society.
The recovery was a rare victory for regaining stolen antiques, which, in the days before electronic security measures, sometimes had a way of disappearing in this history-rich region. Antiques theft is rarer today, Hudson said, because of the upgraded security at most museums.
Sometimes, though, the mysteries of old endure for decades.
Herr himself aided a Pennsylvania State Police sting on a pottery shard stolen in the 1980s. Last year, the U.S. Naval Academy recovered the sword of John L. Worden -- a Civil War naval officer who commanded the famed ironclad the Monitor -- 73 years after the weapon was stolen.
And a more recent example: International authorities have recovered only a few of the thousands of priceless artifacts taken from Baghdad's antiquities museum when the capital fell in 2003.
In many cases, proving ownership of an antique item can be difficult because the victim does not have a comprehensive description or photos of the stolen piece, said Lt. Tom Chase, the Frederick city police officer who investigated the Heyne case. But staff members at the historical society had made detailed notes about the flagon and had taken pictures, which proved that the relic belonged to the society.
Heyne's work is rare and valuable. The artisan specialized in working with pewter -- a soft, silvery mixture of tin and such elements as lead -- that was used widely in cups and utensils in the centuries before glass and stainless steel became cheap to produce. Herr did not know why Heyne had put one foot in front and two in back. "It's harder to pour that way," Herr said in an interview. "He just had a bad day and put it on the wrong way."
Heyne's mistake made it easier to recognize the flagon, which, along with many of the historical society's most valuable pieces, was stolen in 1975. The society's executive director, Mark S. Hudson, said the thief had a discerning eye for antiques, picking out their examples of Amelung glass -- made at the New Bremen Glassworks near Frederick in the 18th century -- as well as a pair of dueling pistols, a Pennsylvania rifle made in Emmitsburg, jewelry and a newspaper from the 1790s.
Except for the flagon, none of the items has been recovered. The flagon, which was returned to Frederick from Pook & Pook Auctioneers in Downingtown, Pa., was part of a two-piece Communion set used at Old Log Church in Creagerstown from 1762 to 1834, Hudson said. The church, renamed Creagerstown Reformed Church, donated the flagon to the historical society in 1942. It is one of 18 Heyne flagons known to exist.
Hudson declined to estimate the value of the relic, but a similar flagon made by Heyne -- with two feet in front -- sold for $145,500 at a Sotheby's auction in 1998, according to the Maine Antique Digest. It was a record for the sale of a pewter item.
Chase said he spoke to the antiques collector who had placed the item on sale and found that the collector purchased the flagon at a flea market 30 years ago, soon after the burglary. Because the collector bought only the flagon and none of the other stolen items -- which were not necessarily at the flea market -- Chase said it was unlikely the other relics, or the thief, would be found.
"Right now, we have no other leads," Chase said. "I think the fact that we've recovered this item is remarkable."