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The Acquisitive Curator Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Meg Turville-Heitz

[image] Former curator David L. Wooley was convicted of looting his own museum. (Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

A former curator of anthropology at the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum in Madison has been convicted of pilfering the museum's ethnographic collection and awaits sentencing for stealing dozens of artifacts. Now the same curator, David L. Wooley, stands accused of removing objects from another Wisconsin museum, the Lac du Flambeau tribal cultural center.

The thefts were uncovered thanks to a tip from German anthropologist Christian Feest of Goethe University, Frankfurt, who saw a Ho-Chunk prophet stick in a 1998 auction catalog and recognized it as one he photographed at the Historical Society Museum a decade earlier. He asked the gallery about the item's provenance and was told the stick was purchased for $28,500 from a dealer who had sold a number of items supposedly owned by Wooley. Feest's query led Wooley to arrange for the dealer to return the artifact to the collection, thanking the German for his efforts.

It might have ended there, but Feest mentioned the bizarre incident to the new museum director, Ann Koski, in the fall of 2000. Alarmed by the tale of the traveling prophet stick, Koski launched an investigation that resulted in a state charge of theft against Wooley, who had become director of the Lac du Flambeau Museum and Cultural Center in 1999.

Searches of Wooley's home and storage units led the curator to admit stealing 34 items from the Historical Society Museum valued between $120,000 and $185,000. Charged with 14 counts of felony theft plus three counts of failing to file state income tax, Wooley faces a maximum sentence* of about 100 years in prison.

During the course of the investigation, Lac du Flambeau tribal officials and artist James F. Frechette, Jr., identified a $15,000 clan bear statue from photos taken in Wooley's apartment. A fresh count of felony theft was filed in August. The cultural center is currently reviewing its collection to determine if other items are missing.

*Update
November 20, 2001: Wooley Sentenced

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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