John Wilson, a long-established dealer and acknowledged expert in autograph letters and historical documents, received an email early last month offering for sale letters from the founding brothers of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley.
Mr Wilson was immediately suspicious as he knew that at least one of the letters from Charles Wesley to the Countess of Huntington was unlikely to be in private hands.
The seller, William John Scott, did not seem to know much about the letters and offered to send ten of them to Mr Wilson for inspection, two of which suffered damage in transit.
In the meantime, Mr Wilson had already undertaken research as to where they might have come from. He contacted officials at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, which holds many important papers relating to the origins of the Methodist church.
Indeed, founded as a Methodist seminary in 1867, Drew is still an official repository for the United Methodist Church itself.
Searching their archives, the university found that more than 20 Wesley letters appeared to be missing. They then contacted the FBI.
It turned out that Scott, a first year undergraduate studying political science at Drew, had worked part-time in the university archives since last October and had been given a key to a storage room containing many rare documents not kept on the open shelves.
When FBI agents conducted a search in Scott’s room on the campus, they discovered a file in his dresser drawer containing six further Wesley letters as well as around ten other documents from the archives. These included letters from five American presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, William McKinley, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower – as well as other letters from Richard Nixon when he was vice president, Robert F. Kennedy and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, former first Lady of China.
Mr Scott was arrested on March 14 when he was escorted off the bus carrying the university’s lacrosse team.
He subsequently appeared at the United States District Court in Newark and was charged with one count of knowingly stealing an object of cultural heritage. If convicted, he could face as much as ten years in prison. He was granted conditional bail provided he remains in the custody of his parents who live in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
Back in Britain, Mr Wilson is still in possession of the John Wesley letters and has been informed that they will be collected by the Metropolitan Police on behalf of the FBI. He told ATG that the stolen Wesley letters were worth around £25,000 in total.
Coincidentally, Mr Wilson has recently purchased a legitimate John Wesley letter at auction for £1900.