Just Like New: Restored Statues Return To Brooks Library

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Brooks Free Library

A display of Rogers Group statuary at Brooks Free Library. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

HARWICH — The Brooks Free Library’s collection of Rogers Group statues, which remain the source of one of the town’s great unsolved crimes, are back in the limelight. And this time it’s for a happy reason.

At one time, the library had a collection of 69 of the valuable clay-and-plaster statuettes, which were created by artist John Rogers and mass produced by skilled craftsmen. They were found in the best parlors of American homes in the late Victorian era, symbols of culture and education.

Fifty-six of the statues were stolen in a brazen burglary in 1976, and only one has been recovered. The library has supplemented its remaining collection with replacements over the years. And thanks to Community Preservation Act funds and the skilled hands of a Woburn-based conservator, 23 statuettes – the bulk of the remaining collection – are now brilliantly restored and back on display.

“The collection is beautiful,” Library Director Ginny Hewitt said. The restoration was done by Skylight Studios and involved meticulous cleaning using methods safe for the statues’ delicate finish, followed by repairs to cracked or chipped portions, and then a restoration of the finish to historical standards. Looking bright and clean and full of detail, the works are once again on display throughout the library. The work was conducted using a $23,000 grant from the community preservation committee and took nearly two years to complete.

“People have been very excited,” Hewitt said. The statues are coupled with informational signs and binders containing information about the figurines, which depict important figures from American history and notable scenes from books and plays.

“Some of them are theatrical themes, but I like the history ones,” she said. Her favorite is called Council of War, and features President Lincoln, General Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The statues are popular with library visitors, “especially long-term Harwich residents who remember the theft,” Hewitt said.

When local philanthropist Pliny Nickerson donated the first 40 of the Rogers Group statues to the Brooks Free Library to celebrate the library's opening in 1881, he couldn't have guessed the strange drama that would play out a few generations later. In 1976, the Boston Globe wrote a feature story highlighting the high demand for the statues, and a few weeks later on March 31, with the finance committee meeting across the street at town hall and with many other residents at a town meeting at the high school on Oak Street, one or more burglars entered the library and stole 56 of the statues.

The burglars ripped the drapes from the windows and wrapped the statues in them. The loss was not covered by insurance, and local police launched a vigorous investigation with help from the FBI to try and locate the statues.

“The theory’s been that they are around locally, but people were afraid to sell them,” Hewitt said. That theory got a boost in 2014 when one of the statues was found at the Treasure Chest, the swap shop at the town’s recycling center. While it was not possible to conclusively say that the statue had been part of the library’s collection – the pieces were mass produced and not unique – it had some telltale evidence. A copy of a newspaper story about the theft had been rolled up and tucked under the arm of one of the figures in the statue.

“It clearly was meant to be returned to us,” Hewitt said. This particular statue, entitled “Checkers up at the Farm,” was among those recently restored. The work really transformed the piece, which Hewitt said testifies not only to the skill of the conservator, but to the conditions where the statute spent the last few decades. Even in a box, statues stored in an attic or storage room become very dirty and are degraded by changes in temperature and humidity, she said.

The statues are now fully insured and protected by a modern alarm system, and are likely quite valuable.

As for the remaining statues lost in the burglary, Hewitt said the person or people who took them have probably since passed away, and their relatives might not know what to do with them.

“It’s family reputation and all,” she said. The library has a covered portico that’s accessible around the clock, but the statutes could be returned to any safe, covered area. “Let us know where it is,” Hewitt said. “There won’t be any questions asked.”

Hewitt said prosecutors rejected the idea of announcing a formal amnesty for the crime, for fear that doing so might set a harmful precedent for cases like the famous art heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But the library is not interested in prosecuting the offenders.

“We’re really focused on recovery,” she said.

In the meantime, visitors to the library can enjoy 23 pristine statues. The library is planning a special event in the springtime with a guest speaker and open house to show off the restored collection. The statuary provides a glimpse into 19th century American culture and history, but that’s not all.

“It’s a really important piece of Harwich heritage,” Hewitt said.