On the border of Israel and Syria in the late 1980s, crews uncovered several hundred proto-cannonballs used by the Roman Empire to weaken enemy fortifications. According to records, the ancient city of Gamla had been overtaken by the Romans after its walls had been destroyed; 9,000 of the city’s residents plunged to their deaths in the gorge below to avoid capture.
Nobody noticed anything was missing until 2015, when two of the ballista balls made an unexpected appearance in the courtyard of a museum. Accompanying the balls was a note indicating that they had been stolen way back in 1995, with an explanation for their return: “These are two Roman ballista balls from Gamla, from a residential quarter at the foot of the summit. I stole them in July 1995, and since then they have brought me nothing but trouble. Please, do not steal antiquities!”
One Spanish thief returned five packages of artifacts, claiming that a curse had befallen his entire family. Mr. Osanna is considering an exhibit of all the letters he’s received called “What I Brought Back From Pompeii.” We suggest a subtitle: “A Lot More Than I Asked For.”
If these details sound a little familiar, it’s because Oxford professor and aspiring author J.R.R. Tolkien was quite familiar with the story of the cursed ring and used it as inspiration for a literary work you may have heard of. The actual ring is frequently displayed with a first edition copy of The Hobbit, with visitors invited to vote on whether they are actually looking at The One Ring To Rule Them All.
The stolen object, a whip handle made from whalebone and belonging to Captain Clendon’s oldest son, was returned to Clendon House less than a month after it was stolen. It was delivered in person by an acquaintance of the thief, who apparently had had enough of whatever misfortunes had come his way. No charges were filed. Says Rawene Police Constable Jeff Cramp, “The person who took it . . . Every time they stub their toe they’ll think hell is starting to drop on them.”
Shortly after returning from his trip, the man suffered unexplained paralysis and fevers before suddenly contracting cancer and dying. The artifact was returned in the hopes of allowing the man’s soul to rest in peace—also, perhaps more understandably, to absolve the stepson and all of the man’s other relatives of culpability in the eyes of the gods. The embassy sent the specimen back to Egypt to be examined for authenticity and presumably to get it as far away as possible.
The park’s rangers gently remind visitors that, no matter how much you might like to take home a little piece of history, those pieces are better left right where they are.
Grounds manager Candace Wheeler decided to contact the thieves to see why they had stolen the headstones. Without exception, they were being used for totally mundane things—doorstops, garden decorations—until the misfortunes started rolling in, ranging from financial woes to divorce and death. Thieves were anxious to know the headstones had been returned to their proper respective graves, hoping this would reverse the curse.
An FBI raid in 1986 seized over 900 artifacts illegally taken from public land. This slowed the collecting but not the selling, especially once the Internet came into play. Then, in 2009, 150 FBI agents descended on the tiny town.
Some of the most prominent citizens were arrested for dealing in stolen antiquities, including the brother of the sheriff and local doctor Jim Redd—who, as a childhood friend of Hurst, would accompany him on those collecting expeditions of decades past. Redd committed suicide the next day, and two others involved with the case followed suit within months.
Vigango must be regularly maintained with sacrifice and libations and must never be removed from where they are erected. An anthropology researcher visiting the tribe in 1999 found that several statues had gone missing and were blamed for a years-long drought and the unexpected deaths of some tribe members. After several years of legal wrangling, the pieces were returned to a museum in Kenya, which handed them over to the Gohu secured in metal cages to ensure that they are not stolen again.
A pair of writers discovered at least 1,200 letters accompanying the returns, dating back to 1934. They collected around 50 of the most incredible into a book, from those whose conscience suddenly wouldn’t leave them alone to others that . . . well, just take a read:
“Upon returning home we first found out that my stepmother had kidney failure, then our dog died . . . I had a really close call in having a bad auto accident, our truck broke down needing major repairs, our cat died and last night . . . A gas well blew out a cap causing us to be evacuated from our home a while. So please take these pieces back before we have any more bad luck . . . ”