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Wistar Bottle Returned to Wistar Institute

Lita Solis-Cohen | July 14th, 2013

Richard Wistar’s bottle.  According to Stradling, other seal bottles with different initials from the Wistarburgh factory exist, but so far only two have been found with “RW.”

One doesn’t always do well by doing good. If William S. Hyland had put his Wistar bottle on a shelf after he bought it in 1991 and not lent it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), he would not have had to hire an attorney to try to prove that he had good title. In the fall of 2012, after learning that a grand jury was hearing testimony regarding his purchase of the bottle, he hired a lawyer. When the case was about to go to trial, his lawyer advised him to give the bottle to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, which claimed the bottle had been in its collection more than 60 years ago.

The bottle in question is one of two (known to date) green glass bottles with the “RW” seal that belonged to Richard Wistar and were made at the first successful glass factory in the American colonies. The factory was established by Caspar Wistar on Alloway Creek in New Jersey in 1739. Richard Wistar, the eldest son of Caspar Wistar, took over the business when his father died in 1752.

Robert K. Wittman (a former FBI sleuth,who runs a successful business retrieving stolen treasures and wrote the bestseller Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures), had urged Nina Long, archivist at the Wistar Institute, to search the institution’s records. She found evidence that the bottle had once been in the institute’s collection. “It was here in 1951 and not here in 1971,” said Long in a phone interview. She said that the bottle was part of the bequest of Civil War Brigadier General Isaac Jones Wistar in 1905 along with his great-uncle Caspar Wistar’s papers and anatomical teaching tools.

Long said she believes the bottle was taken by Thomas Haviland, who had been a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School and curator of the Army Medical Museum and Library (now the National Museum of Health and Medicine) in Washington, D.C. Long said Haviland had helped dispose of the Wistar Institute’s collection of specimens in 1960 and 1961, when the institution was changing into a biomedical research laboratory and needed the museum space for offices. Haviland had sold some of the specimens to other institutions, Long said, and because he was not paid for his work, he allegedly helped himself to other specimens, pamphlets, and the bottle, but there is no public record of that theft.

When Haviland died in 1986, the contents of his house were put in storage and remained there until they were sold at an auction in Philadelphia in the summer of 1988. The buyer of a box lot at the auction was a well-respected dealer in rare scientific books, who gave the anatomy specimens to the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and kept some books and the bottle.

When the bookseller came across a reference to a similar bottle in the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, he called the curator, Jane Shadel Spillman, to find out if the bottle had any value. She directed him to J. Garrison Stradling, a leading dealer in American glass. As reported in M.A.D. (October 2012, p. 10-A), Stradling took the bottle on consignment, advertised it, and sold it to Hyland, the Main Line collector who lent it to the PMA.

Because it was on view at a museum, the 20-year statute of limitations for a suit to determine good title did not apply, according to Wittman. In 2011 Wittman alerted archivist Long at the Wistar Institute that the bottle was on exhibition at the PMA and suggested that she ask for its return.

The case, first scheduled for a grand jury in Philadelphia, was moved to the U.S. District Court in Delaware, where Wittman has worked with success with David L. Hall, an assistant U.S. attorney and special prosecutor on the FBI art crime team.

“We had the evidence. I have no doubt we would have won the case,” said Hall in a phone interview. “The case was settled before trial, and the bottle is now where it belongs. It is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the label has been changed from ‘on loan from a private collector’ to ‘on loan from the Wistar Institute.’”

Jeffrey Miller, the Philadelphia attorney Hyland hired, said he advised his client to return the bottle. “It was the best solution,” he said. “My client avoided the expense of going to court.”

Hyland agreed to give the bottle to Wistar, if Wistar agreed to keep it on loan at the PMA for a year and after that at a comparable public museum. Hyland was also absolved of any criminal or civil crime. Miller said his client would not attempt to recover the purchase price from Stradling. The case is closed. Miller added that he hoped Hyland’s gift of the bottle to the Wistar Institute would be tax deductible, but that matter is in the hands of his client’s accountant.

The bottle has appreciated significantly since Hyland bought it from Stradling more than 20 years ago for $48,000. John DeCaro, a New Jersey dealer in early American glass and a specialist in Wistar glass, said he believes he could get at least $125,000 for it at one of his auctions, maybe more.

Nina Long said the Wistar Institute is building a new seven-story ultramodern tower behind its historic structure at 3601 Spruce Street and will soon have space to show some of its treasures. “We want to show the bottle along with the agreement with the four German glassblowers brought to New Jersey to teach Caspar Wistar and his son Richard the secrets of glassmaking. It is in our collection.”

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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