March 9, 1862, just three days shy of his 44th birthday, Lieutenant
John Lorimer Worden was fighting the battle of his life. The
ship he commanded -- the iron-plated USS Monitor -- had just
arrived in the waters outside Hampton Roads, Virginia. Its
mission: to turn back another armored vessel, the CSS Virginia
(often known by its previous name, the Merrimack), which had
sunk two Union frigates the day before and was threatening
the North's naval blockade.
after noon, following hours of heavy volleys back and forth,
the Virginia aimed its fire at the pilothouse of the Monitor,
where Worden was directing the fight. A shell exploded, temporarily
blinding the Lieutenant. His injuries were so severe that
he had to relinquish command. But the Monitor kept fighting,
forcing the Virginia to withdraw and preserving the blockade,
the Union fleet, and ultimately, the Union itself.
Elegant Tribute. News of the world's first ironclad battle
spread quickly, electrifying the nation and forever changing
the history of naval warfare. It also made John Worden a hero.
President Lincoln himself visited the injured lieutenant.
Worden's home state of New York paid tribute to its native
son as well -- in a grand way. It commissioned from Tiffany
& Co. an ornate, finely crafted 37-inch sword, inlaid with
gold and silver. Its handle was emblazoned with the Roman
God of the Sea, Neptune. And with it came a gold-plated sheath
and gold-embroidered belt. All together, the set cost some
$550, a hefty sum in those days.
Theft. Worden's star continued to rise. He served as Superintendent
of the U.S. Naval Academy and ended his career as Rear Admiral.
Fifteen years after his death in 1912, the family donated
the sword and other items to the U.S. Naval Academy museum.
Then in 1931, the sword -- already considered priceless because
of its link to the infamous ironclad battle -- vanished. The
Navy's investigation came to nought.
was the Sword Found? In 1998, FBI art theft experts in
Philadelphia began investigating the shady dealings of several
appraisers on the hit PBS series, the Antiques Roadshow. By
2002, three men were in jail for engaging in more than $1
million worth of memorabilia fraud. But FBI Agents didn't
stop there. They pored over the voluminous records of the
appraisers, file-by-file, looking for more stolen treasures
or phony deals. Late last year, they found records on the
Worden sword, which had been bought by an appraiser and then
resold to a collector. The Agents contacted the U.S. Naval
Academy, discovered the sword was stolen, and tracked it down.
On Monday, the sword was returned to the Naval Academy in
Annapolis by the FBI.
FBI's Advice For Collectors: Two words: due diligence.
When buying a priceless work of art, make sure you know its
history. It is a federal offense to obtain by theft or fraud
any object of cultural heritage from a museum. For more information,
see the FBI's Art Theft website.
Link: See more detailed pictures of the Worden
sword... and learn more details about the case on the