Buffalo police and the FBI are investigating the theft of seven African artifacts worth as much as $600,000 from a secure storage area in the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Five finely carved ivory tusks from the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, a carved wooden stool and a carved wooden mask apparently were taken from a locked fourth-floor anthropology department storeroom between Dec. 23 and Jan. 20, while curator Kevin Smith was away.
When Smith returned, "he smelled cigarette smoke in the collections area, and noticed things had been disturbed," said Patrick Keyes, museum public information officer.
A "frantic" weeklong search revealed the loss of the seven items, all from West Africa.
The tusks were carved at the Pan-American Exhibition by African artisans who came to Buffalo to take part in the African Village pavilion, Keyes said, and were later acquired by the museum.
The stool and mask, he added, "are two of our better West African pieces."
Museum officials believe the heist probably was an inside job carried out with the help of a present or former employee, Keyes said.
"There was no sign of forced entry, and you need some pretty special keys to open the collections storage room," he said.
There also were signs that the thief or thieves brought along a shopping list. At various times over the years the missing items have been pictured in publications that would serve as handy guidebooks for any art robber.
Museum President Michael J. Smith noted that the stolen items were to have been the centerpieces of an upcoming exhibition recognizing the African Village and its people as part of the Pan-American Exposition centennial in 2001.
"We think they knew exactly what they wanted," Keyes said. "Things had to be moved to get to those items. We have eight ivory carvings, but they only took five."
Like other art thefts, this one probably was fueled by skyrocketing market prices. In recent years the both legal and illicit trade in West African art has boomed.