recovered projectile points. Photo courtesy ICE

 PROVIDENCE – An historic collection of 34 stone projectile points, some determined to be more than 1,000 years old, were returned Jan. 15, 2020, to Rhode Island’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology more than 30 years after they first vanished from the museum’s collections.
The stone projectile points, used primarily for hunting, were unearthed by Harrie M. Wheeler, a noted Rhode Island collector and amateur archeologist, during excavations that he conducted between 1928 and 1950 in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

Harrie M. Wheeler, a Rhode Island native with a passion for pre-Columbian archaeology and anthropology, sold part of his collection of artifacts to Rudolf F. Haffenreffer Jr. in 1928 for the sum of $1,000. Haffenreffer was a local brewer, entrepreneur and philanthropist who subsequently founded the museum that bears his name, and that became a part of Brown University in 1955 following his death. A second set of artifacts gathered by Wheeler, including the stone projectile points returned today, were acquired by the Museum in 1985.

Two years later, in 1987, the Museum’s assistant curator noticed that the stone projectile points, along with a number of other items, were missing. They were reported stolen to Brown University and Bristol Police. While a number of the stolen items surfaced over the course of the next three decades at flea markets or private sales, the fate of this particular group of missing artifacts remained a mystery until early 2019, when an adroit observer noticed a listing on eBay offering a “collection of museum quality arrowheads” for sale for $500.

The listing included photos, one of which showed the stone projectile points in their original display box, bearing a label reading: “Arrowheads from a Rhode Island Archaeological dig in East Greenwich, Kent County, Rhode Island, 1928-1950, Ex Wheeler Collection, Haffenreffer Museum, All Authentic.”

One of the items was marked with the number “85-827,” which matched the Haffenreffer’s catalog number for the artifacts. Contacted by the individual who first observed the listing, curators at the Haffenreffer reached out to the Brown University and Bristol Police Departments, who in turn requested the assistance of HSI. Federal investigators were able to quickly locate the eBay seller, secure the items, and confirm their provenance.

Based on the investigation by HSI special agents who worked on the case, it was discovered an eBay seller acquired the stone projectile points for a case of wine from an individual who listed them on Craigslist. HSI’s investigation, and efforts to determine the whereabouts of other items stolen from the Haffenreffer collection in 1987 remains ongoing, and anyone with potentially relevant information is urged to contact the HSI Tip Line at (866) 347-2423.
Using a provision of federal law that allows the government to recover stolen goods that travel across state lines, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Rhode Island filed a lawsuit to forfeit the stone projectile points. Following completion of that lawsuit, and a review of Brown’s petition for return of the projectile points to the Museum, federal authorities today were able to return them to where they properly belong.