Purchase Story

Stolen Pipe Tomahawk, Gifted By Washington to Cornplanter, Recovered and On Display

An 18th-century Native American pipe tomahawk, purportedly gifted to Seneca leader Cornplanter (d. 1836) by President George Washington in 1792, has been returned to the New York State Museum and is on exhibit through December 30.

Photo courtesy New York State Museum.

For nearly 70 years the tomahawk was in the hands of private collectors, after being stolen from the museum between 1947 and 1950.

Its return was aided by Cincinnati auctioneer Wes Cowan, who saw the tomahawk three or four years ago while doing an appraisal in Bend, Oregon. “I saw it and told the collector, ‘You can’t possibly have clear title to this. It’s the property of the New York State Museum,” said Cowan, who sold the rest of the collection at auction.

“I told them, ‘I can’t sell it. I won’t sell it. You should go back to the guy you bought it from and demand your money back. You received stolen property,’” Cowan recalled telling the now-deceased collector. The collector had paid $75,000 for it.

After Cowan refused to sell the tomahawk, the family offered it to Bonhams, which also turned down the consignment.

“After that, the widow said, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ and I told her, you have to return it to the New York State Museum,” said Cowan. “You can’t take a tax write-off for it. It’s stolen property.” Cowan said the family contemplated offering it to the Seneca, but he implored them to return it to the museum.

“My guess is that the early people who had this tomahawk are dead,” said Cowan, “and later owners may not have known it was stolen.”

The meetings in the 1790s between Washington and Cornplanter, also known as Gy-ant-waka, eventually led to the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794), which established peace between the sovereign nations of the U.S. and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.

The pipe tomahawk entered the New York State Museum’s collection in 1850, courtesy of Seneca diplomat Ely Parker, who purchased it from the widow of a Seneca named Small Berry. On one side of the blade is Cornplanter’s name, Gy-ant-waka, and on the other side of the blade is the name “John Andrus,” possibly the manufacturer. Parker replaced the haft with one made of curly maple and silver inlay to reflect what the original haft may have looked like, based on descriptions from Small Berry’s widow, as the original haft had long since been replaced. Parker also added a brass plate engraved with his name on the bore end of the tomahawk.

Gwen Saul, curator of ethnography at the New York State Museum, said, “In mid-April I got a letter from a law firm on the Northwest Coast saying they had a client who may or may not know the whereabouts of an artifact that might be from your museum. I knew what they were talking about because a previous staff member here, George Hamill, had written extensively about the tomahawk from our records when it was offered in the 1990s. That was the last time the museum was really aware of it [the tomahawk]. George had advised legal counsel here to try and get it back, but nothing came of it.”

“The letter included a sentence that I found amusing, ‘Please respond with your level of interest,’” said Saul, laughing.

Several weeks later, Saul and the collector spoke by telephone. The tomahawk was back with the museum just over two months after the first contact. A folder full of information that had accompanied the tomahawk for years—passed from owner to owner—was also given to the museum. 

The tomahawk was in the marketplace for some time; the first known appearance is when it sold at auction in 1980 in Pennsylvania. The buyer sold it for $6000 to a dealer two years later, according to Saul.

It was offered on the market again in 1990, on consignment with dealer George Terasaki, for $25,000, and the museum came close to getting it back then. Saul said, “[Terasaki] was a big-time dealer in Native American art…, and he had it on consignment from a CEO of a distribution company in New Jersey.

“The museum caught wind of it, and George Hamill, who had been doing research on it, asked two friends, fellow anthropologists…to go look at the pipe tomahawk to see if it was possibly ours and to try and verify it. They went, and both claimed that the engraving of Cornplanter’s name and John Andrus on the blade were not visible.... They didn’t see it, but for whatever reason—even though I think there were plenty of other distinguishing factors—it cast enough doubt so they weren’t sure.” The museum failed to pursue it at that time. Cowan said he had heard that the engraving on the blade had been “refreshed” at one time.

Collector Eugene Thaw purchased it in a multi-object deal from Terasaki, according to Saul. “It went to Santa Fe in his [Thaw’s] collection for a short period of time, but he returned it to Terasaki and claimed it was outside the purview of his collecting,” she said.

Thaw was refunded, and Terasaki returned the tomahawk to his consignor. Hamill wrote to the New Jersey collector, asking if the museum could examine the tomahawk, according to Saul. The collector refused, telling the museum that he had clear title to it. Again, the museum did not pursue the matter.

Saul said the tomahawk passed through at least three more hands before it ended up with the collector in Oregon. She noted that there was no official record or report of its being stolen, which added to the challenge of retrieving it.

Originally published in the September 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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