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Thieves Mining California’s Historic Past

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You didn’t have to be a history lover to marvel at its craftsmanship. A specially built, Gold Rush-era presentation box in quartz gold, embellished with state icons. A  state treasure, idt took my breath away. And now it’s in the hands of thieves.

But I am a history lover and fourth generation Californian with a strong kinship for the rough-cut folks who arrived in our state to find a fortune and, in the process, build their Bear Flag Republic. For that reason I went to the Oakland Museum years ago to see their Silver & Gold exhibit, a magnificent collection of Gold Rush-era artifacts. In the center of a small room in the exhibit, on a small dais bathed in white museum light and surrounded by gold nuggets, was this gold quartz casket.

It was a long time ago and I can’t remember if it was a Shreve box, or if the maker had even been determined and pre-dated Shreve’s arrival in the West, but the craftsmanship was exquisite and representative of the age when people marked special occasions and friendships with special things, and this box was special. Museum goers backed up behind me as I stopped and stared. “Wow,” someone said, “I wonder how much that is.” Under my breath I remember muttering at the time: “Half a million… priceless.” It was stunning, a quietly supreme centerpiece to a magnificent collection.

I have thought often of that box. And I spent most of the day yesterday wondering who had stolen it, and what would become of it – as most of our most prized state history has been pilfered and thrown into secret smelters of late. Lost forever.

You may have heard of the theft by now. Oakland Museum officials have taken down archived photos of the Silver & Gold exhibit, and there are no pictures of the casket, or box, and I must go on what my mind’s eye remembers of it. With thieves targeting small, local museums for gold and other artifacts and vandals taking crowbars to peel off bronze markers and statues dedicated to the pioneers who came here ahead of us all, I spent most of Tuesday praying the box was recovered – intact – and swiftly.

Most of the news accounts of the theft are having  are having a hard time describing the box, stolen Monday in the second of two carefully timed raids at the Oakland Museum in recent months. It is alternately described as being made of gold and quartz, when in fact it was made of gold quartz, that beautifully milky white and gold-veined ore which only a few of the hundreds of thousands “Sons of ’49” were able to get their hands on after travelling thousands of miles to reach this special place and pick up the nuggets reportedly laying in our fields. It was embellished with mining and state iconography, each piece created by a skilled hand and fashioned of gold or silver, if I remember correctly. At the time I couldn’t help but think how lucky the man was who it had been given to, and how it must have looked on his desk. To fully appreciate it, perhaps, one would have to appreciate the craftsmanship of a Tiffany, or a Faberge. It was that magnificent.

Museum officials have been quoted as saying the box is worth roughly $800,000 in today’s money. Certainly an attractive target for someone who knew what they were looking at, and with recent break-ins at smaller museums in which Gold Rush artifacts were targeted, it is apparent that thieves have realized the value in our historic past and have set out to  abscond with it.

It was a crime, surely, to have seen it taken away. But if it is broken up and smelted for its gold content, or even if it goes to a discerning collector with a special room of his or her own where only they can admire its craftsmanship and glorious past, that would be even more of a crime.

Join me in wishing for its swift return.