How a stolen thumb and drunken mistake at a Philly museum confounded the international art world
Michael Rohana's decision to break the thumb off an ancient terra-cotta statue sparked an international incident with China, exposed Pennsylvania’s most popular museum to questions about its security failures and eventually landed him in court. But that's only the beginning of his story.
As he crept past a roped-off stanchion, up a ramp and into a darkened room at the Franklin Institute, Michael Rohana knew he was somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.
He had slipped away from his friends while attending an after-hours, “Ugly Sweater” Christmas party at the museum. And using his cell phone as a flashlight, the inebriated 24-year-old began to scan the area around him.
Stern gray faces etched from clay leered out from the shadows — the visages of 10 life-size soldiers from a 2,000-year-old Chinese terra-cotta army.
Pretty cool, he thought, grabbing one of the figures in a side embrace and mugging for a selfie.
As he prepared to sneak back out, Rohana stopped to examine one more: an elaborately armored statue positioned next to a sculpted clay horse. Rohana reached toward the warrior’s hand, grasped its left thumb, and pulled.
That decision — one Rohana later described as a drunken, stupid mistake — would quickly ripple across the globe. It would spark an international incident with China, expose Pennsylvania’s most popular museum to questions about its security failures, and eventually land Rohana in federal court.
It would also lead to an unusual trial in Philadelphia featuring testimony from a host of fine-art experts eager to challenge one another’s qualifications and, in the process, expose an inherent clash between the subjective world of art appraisals and the justice system’s demand for proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
And this week, that one thoughtless act left a jury in Philadelphia flummoxed, unable to reach a verdict after absorbing a week’s worth of testimony and evidence that for the first time revealed the full story behind the prank that grabbed headlines around the world.
But as he stood in the darkness two years ago with a broken clay thumb in his hand, Rohana couldn’t have envisioned any of that.
He simply shoved the finger into his pocket and ran.
“I still don’t know why I did it,” he would tell jurors more than a year later. “I just don’t know what I was thinking.”
‘I started to hyperventilate’
The morning after the Dec. 21, 2017 party, the seriousness of Rohana’s actions began to sink in.
He woke up in his bedroom in his parents’ two-story brick home in Bear, Del., still wearing his jeans and the garish green sweater he had bought the previous day with his mom at a shopping mall. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the thumb.
“That’s when a million things started going through my head,” he would later explain. “I started to hyperventilate. I was in my bedroom pacing back and forth. I was scared.”
Shoving the digit in a desk drawer, he tried to convince himself the statue was a replica — that he hadn’t defaced a piece of art nearly as old as Chinese civilization itself. He forced himself to go to work that day at his job as a department-store shoe salesman.
But Rohana’s panic only grew.
As the weeks passed, he found himself constantly Googling “Franklin Institute,” “terra-cotta warrior,” and other search terms like “stealing jail time” — hoping they wouldn’t turn up headlines.
His dread became too much to bear. One night, while watching TV with his mother, Michele, he leaned in, clutched her arm and told her everything.
They discussed returning the finger to the Franklin Institute. But how? Mail it? Sneak it back into the museum? Or could they anonymously leave it somewhere for institute staff to find?
Ultimately, they did nothing.
At the museum, a panic of a different sort had set in.
Two weeks after the Ugly Sweater party, Susannah Carroll, an assistant director of collections at the Franklin Institute, was making her daily rounds when, for the first time, she noticed the absent thumb.
The defaced statue — a piece known as The Cavalryman — was one of 10 on loan to the museum from China, each a prized relic fully restored from thousands of fragments unearthed from the tomb of the nation’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
A dominant figure in Chinese history, he united the nation under his rule in the third century B.C. His tomb in central Shaanxi Province took 39 years and a labor force of up to 720,000 workers to complete and is considered one of the country’s most important historic sites.
The Chinese government strictly regulates display and restoration of the terra-cotta warriors housed inside and had spent years reviewing the Franklin Institute’s security protocols and exhibit plans before agreeing to loan the works.
Carroll had been on the team the museum sent to China to escort the statues to the United States. She knew instantly that the fallout for its failure to protect them would be severe.
Within 24 hours, specialists from the FBI Art Crimes Team arrived. In consultation with institute staff, they reviewed ticket stubs, and pored over surveillance-camera footage from the night of the party. Days later, they narrowed in on their suspect.
On Jan. 13, 2018, a 3:30 a.m. phone call sent the Rohana household scrambling.
Agents had just visited the home of a friend who had also been at the museum party. They are on their way to your house, he warned.
Rohana ran to wake his parents; his mom fainted. Then, came the knock at the door.
“Do you have anything you want to turn over to the FBI?” the agents asked.
Rohana immediately pointed upstairs, led them to his bedroom, and fished the thumb out of the desk drawer where he had kept it for weeks.
“Part of me was kind of relieved,” he would later testify. “It was like the pressure was finally taken off.”
But that momentary relief proved fleeting.
After his arrest, China sent a delegation to assess the damage and retrieve The Cavalryman’s thumb. Representatives were horrified by the damage. The director of the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center demanded “severe punishment for the perpetrator.”
Eager to assuage the upset Chinese, Philadelphia’s City Council that spring passed a unanimous resolution of apology, calling the incident “an embarrassment” and citing a “failure of security” at the museum.
Three months after the incident, a federal grand jury indicted Rohana on counts of theft and concealment of an object of cultural heritage — crimes each punishable by up to a decade in prison.
A charge fit for an art thief
The law under which Rohana was charged, known as the federal art theft statute, emerged from a 1994 bill sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch in response to the audacious — and still unsolved — heist of artwork worth an estimated $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker, who was assigned to Rohana’s case, had overseen one of the first cases prosecuted under the statute — a 2001 matter involving the misappropriation of a Civil War officer’s uniform by the former curator of Philadelphia’s Civil War Library and Museum.
It has been used fewer than 20 times in the years since to punish thieves whose loot included everything from gold bars and valuable coins from museums to historically significant maps.
But in each of those cases, the motive had been financial gain. Rohana’s proceedings marked the first time the law was applied to a theft with no apparent motive besides the thrill of vandalism.
With their client potentially facing years behind bars, Rohana’s lawyers, federal public defenders Catherine C. Henry and Nancy MacEoin, balked at what they saw as prosecutorial overreach.
This was a case, they thought, that they could fight and win. They dove into research on the statue’s history and consulted with art-world insiders, all the while counseling Rohana to hold his nerve and reject any pressure to plead guilty.
“Being a drunk kid doing an act of vandalism was never meant to fit into the federal art theft statute,” Henry would later argue in court. “That just doesn’t belong here.”
As the trial opened this month, they highlighted another key element of the federal art crimes statute — a requirement that the stolen item be worth more than $5,000 — and asked jurors to consider a question:
Just how do you measure the value of a Chinese relic considered by all accounts to be priceless?
Pegging the price of a finger
The Chinese government has forbidden the sale or purchase of the terra-cotta warriors from the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. And yet, a wide range of estimated values has been put forth over the years.
The U.N. valued them at $350,000 each when they were first displayed in 1985. Lloyd’s of London insured The Cavalryman at $4.5 million before it was shipped for exhibit to the Franklin Institute in 2017.
But those sums were for the whole statue. Rohana’s case concerned only the value of the thumb he stole.
“The only way I could appraise this is accept the $4.5 million insured value and then try to assess what percentage the thumb would represent,” said Michael Cohn, an Asian-art appraiser called as an expert witness for the government.
Cohn ultimately concluded a hand would comprise roughly 20 percent and the thumb alone just 5 percent of the statue’s overall value. His appraisal: $150,000.
He justified that determination with a sweeping analysis that touched on everything from the importance of opposable thumbs in human evolution to the role fingers have played throughout art history, starting with the first ancient cave paintings and running through to Michelangelo’s masterwork The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Defense lawyers dismissed Cohn’s reasoning as “preposterous, circular logic.”
“You placed a value of 20 percent on a hand and 5 percent on a finger?” MacEoin challenged him in cross-examination. “So, if a statue was missing five fingers, it would lose more value than if it was missing the whole hand?”
Asian-art specialists called by the defense were equally dubious — though, they too, confidently produced wildly differing figures.
“The thumb in question, I would characterize as a pottery shard,” said Marley Rabstenek, who owns appraisal and art brokerage firms in New York and Hong Kong. “Taken out of context — away from the warrior, away from the army — it loses all of its marketability. It just becomes a piece of pottery that really has no value.”
Its value at an auction? Maybe $500 — at most, she said
Jurors even got a dose of celebrity on the stand. Lark E. Mason, a bespectacled, bow-tied staple of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, suggested the value of The Cavalryman might actually increase once the broken thumb was restored.
Modern adhesives are more sophisticated and less noticeable than those used when the statue was first reassembled from more than 30 pieces in the 1970s and ‘80s, he said. Still, Mason estimated the thumb’s price at $1,000, likening any value it might have on its own to the sentimental worth a collector might assign to a vial of dirt from Yankee Stadium or one brick from the Great Wall of China.
“When you’re talking about digit-sized elements, you’re not talking about artistry at all,” he testified. “You’re talking about someone who wants a piece of the greater whole.”
Challenged during his cross-examination with those vastly varying estimates and approaches, Cohn threw up his hands.
“Appraisal practices are not set up in such a way that these things are set in stone,” he said. “Everything becomes a little bit subjective.”
In the end, the inherent subjectivity in the various appraisals left jurors exasperated. For 11 hours over two days this week, they clustered in a room off the 16th-floor courtroom in Philadelphia’s federal courthouse, arguing over whether Rohana’s crime — and more specifically the single clay digit he stole — fit the criteria of the federal art theft statute.
Finally they told the judge they were unable to agree.
In interviews afterward, six members of the panel described a seven-to-five vote to acquit — all because they couldn’t conclude beyond a reasonable doubt how much The Cavalryman’s thumb was worth.
“We just didn’t know what to make of any of that,” said juror Pedro Padilla, a 62-year-old operations supervisor from Allentown. “You had one person saying it was worth a couple hundred and another saying it was worth hundreds of thousands.”
Prosecutors have not yet indicated whether they intend to retry Rohana. If the case does not proceed in federal court, it’s possible that he could face state charges such as criminal mischief or vandalism — crimes with much less severe penalties.
Either way, Assistant U.S. Attorney K.T. Newton said, some form of punishment is warranted.
“Michael Rohana deliberately broke the thumb,” she said in her final pitch to jurors last week. “He took it out of the Franklin Institute, and he took it home. That is theft. That is stealing.”
But as the judge declared a mistrial Tuesday, Rohana — who had spent much of the prior week with his brow knitted in anxiety, his face looking like he might vomit at any moment — cracked a first, wary smile.
He had been spared for now, at least, by the unknowable price of a thumb.