How a Terra-Cotta Warrior Lost Its Thumb to a Delaware Shoe Salesman

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If a 24-year-old shoe salesman slips away from a science museum’s ugly-sweater party and breaks into a closed exhibition of terra-cotta warriors, it is entirely possible that nothing bad will happen.

Or he could steal a warrior’s thumb.

After the salesman, Michael Rohana, confessed to doing that in Philadelphia six years ago, federal prosecutors sought a conviction on felony charges that could have put him in prison for decades. A jury was unable to reach a verdict in 2019, but his case is now heading for a resolution after a pandemic-related delay.

Mr. Rohana entered a guilty plea this week for trafficking in archaeological resources, the result of a plea deal with prosecutors. The charge will most likely be a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $10,000 fine. He is to be sentenced in August.

“What he was charged with is basically stealing a piece of history,” K.T. Newton, an assistant U. S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview.

Lawyers for Mr. Rohana, 29, did not respond to requests for comment. One of them, Catherine C. Henry, argued in court in 2019 that her client was merely “a drunk kid in a bright green ugly Christmas sweater” who was initially charged under the wrong law.

Mr. Rohana stole the terra-cotta thumb from the Franklin Institute, a Philadelphia museum that specializes in exhibitions about science and technology.

In late 2017, the institute was displaying 10 terra-cotta warriors, a small subset of the roughly 8,000 clay figures that were buried with China’s first emperor more than 2,000 years ago to defend him in the afterlife (and were uncovered in 1974 by farmers who were digging a well). The show allowed visitors to digitally recreate the warriors’ lost weapons using artificial intelligence.

On Dec. 21, 2017, Mr. Rohana and some friends drove to the museum in a white minivan to attend an ugly-sweater party, a “science after hours” event for people 21 and over, court documents show. A few minutes after 9 p.m., he slipped into the closed warrior exhibition.

In the darkness, Mr. Rohana walked around in his ugly sweater and a Phillies cap, lighting up the terra-cotta figures with his cellphone flashlight. At one point he placed his arm on one of them and snapped a selfie.

It took museum officials a couple of weeks to notice that the thumb was missing from a warrior known as the cavalryman. When an F.B.I. agent visited Mr. Rohana at his family’s home in Bear, Del., he confessed to the crime and allowed the agent to retrieve the stolen property from a desk in his bedroom.

“I don’t know why I broke it,” Mr. Rohana told a court in 2019, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It didn’t just happen, but there was never a thought of, ‘I should break this.’”

Mr. Rohana’s caper prompted anger in China, where many of the warriors are displayed at a UNESCO World Heritage site outside the central city of Xi’an.

In a sign of how important the warriors are to China, a man was sentenced to death there after stealing one of the statue’s heads in the 1980s. The Chinese government also does not allow more than 10 warriors to be exhibited abroad at a single exhibition.

In 2018, an official from the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center, which organizes the display of the statues outside China, asked that Mr. Rohana be given a tough penalty. The Philadelphia City Council formally apologized to China, noting in a resolution that the damaged warrior was “invaluable.”

The perceived value of the warrior’s thumb turned out to be central to the case.

To convict Mr. Rohana on the initial felony charge, the jury would have needed to agree that the stolen thumb was worth more than $5,000. Curators from the museum had told the F.B.I. that the cavalryman was worth $4.5 million, and an expert witness called by the prosecution said that its thumb was worth about $150,000, Artnet News reported.

But an art appraiser called by the defense, Lark Mason, said the thumb was worth only about $1,000 — the cost of reattaching it. Mr. Mason said in an email that, unlike, say, a Picasso print, it is difficult to establish the market value of a terra-cotta warrior in part because one of them has never been sold in public.

Unlike devotional figures made of bronze or porcelain that were designed to withstand damage and were intended for public display, Mr. Mason added, terra-cotta warriors were meant to be buried and were susceptible to damage because they are made of clay. He also noted that the warrior’s stolen thumb had previously been broken off and reattached.

“For the other appraisers, it was difficult to understand that the value was not based on ‘perfection’ as with a fine Ming porcelain vase, but was more symbolic, and thus disassociated from condition issues which would normally affect most works of art,” said Mr. Mason, an emeritus president of the Appraisers Association of America.

The guilty plea entered on Monday said that the thumb’s commercial value was not more than $500, a detail that should make Mr. Rohana’s crime a misdemeanor rather than a felony, said Ms. Newton, the government prosecutor. She said the deal was a compromise that reflected a number of factors, including the length of time that the case has been pending.

Mr. Mason said that while he thought Mr. Rohana deserved to be punished, the Franklin Institute had allowed “easy access to what should have been a tightly secured area, particularly since the institution was hosting an ‘ugly sweater’ event with college-aged students.”

“This is not something that would ever have happened at the Metropolitan Museum,” he added.

The Franklin Institute said in response that Mr. Rohana had “made a concerted effort to climb over a barricade in a closed exhibit and break the thumb off a 2,000-year-old historical artifact.” The museum has also reviewed and updated its security measures since the incident to ensure that they “meet and exceed industry best practices,” the statement said.

It was unclear how people and officials in China viewed the latest turn in Mr. Rohana’s case. There hasn’t been much talk about it on Chinese social media platforms in recent days, and the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center did not respond to an interview request. Officials at the museum where the warriors are displayed, and which received the stolen thumb from the American authorities, declined to comment.

Zhao Congcang, an archaeology professor at Northwest University in Xi’an, said by phone that he hoped to see Mr. Rohana’s behavior “punished to reflect the seriousness of the law.”

Even if the cavalryman is restored, he added, “nothing can change the fact that the finger was once damaged.”

Li You contributed research.

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