People go to museums to be wowed. They want to get popped in the face with a little bit of unknown history or bathe in the glory of new information and beautiful artifacts. But if guests visited one Philadelphia museum on August 22, 2018, they were treated to something a little different.
See, guests of this one-of-a-kind museum expected to learn a little something about nature when they passed through its sliding doors on a hot summer day. They did not expect, however, to walk into the aftermath of a truly bizarre mystery…
In North East Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the Delaware River, you could find a museum that truly was one of a kind. The museum sought to educate guests on an underappreciated — and often despised — aspect of the natural world.
In one part of the museum, stunted palm trees stretched towards a ceiling window, while lush-green flora jutted from islands of dirt. Transparent orbs hung from the rafters — and this room was just one of many main attractions…
The flora-filled room was the butterfly garden at the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, and there, fluttering butterflies mingled with guests. Still, visitors craved more than butterflies — and the insectarium delivered.
See, guests poured into the museum for birthday parties, field trips, and more to see tanks filled with the rarest insects imaginable — from tarantulas to scorpions. You know, the bugs that would send most people screaming with fear.
However, if you visited the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion on August 22nd, 2018, you wouldn’t have seen creepy crawlies of every variety. You would have seen frantic bug-loving staff combing over every inch of the museum.
That’s because, when museum staff arrived in the morning, they noticed many of the insect enclosures were completely empty! Battling the oncoming sense of dread, they went to check on the backroom where the museum housed insects that were not on display.
In the backroom, shelves once lined with containers holding hundreds of bugs were also empty. Somehow, 7,000 bugs from the insectarium — more than 80 percent of the museum’s total collection — completely vanished.
Perhaps more puzzling than the disappearances, however, were the two employee uniforms stuck to the break room wall with knives. Was this some kind of forceful resignation? Or something far more sinister?
Desperate for answers, the facility’s owner and chief executive John Cambridge gathered the museum’s staff in an all-hands-on-deck meeting, where they surveyed security footage from the day before.
Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilionon vis Philly
The footage revealed five museum employees milling about during operating hours. Then a museum director scooped a tarantula out of its exhibit, placed it in a plastic container, and walked away. Exterior cameras captured more.
John and his staff watched footage showing their once-trusted co-workers loading boxes into their personal vehicles, and others carrying containers with bugs off fire escapes. It was all John needed to see: this, he knew, was an insect heist — and an inside job!
And there was poetry in the heist’s simplicity. “Movement of creatures throughout the facility is quite common,” John said. “We’re always taking things for education programs…[etc.]…and so they just walked straight out the front door with them.”
John supposed the rogue employees swiped the bugs to sell them on the exotic pet black market, where a healthy Gooty sapphire tarantula, below, could net you $350 a pop, and a mating pair of Rhinoceros cockroaches could fetch $500.
In fact, John estimated the thieves got away with about $40,000 worth of rare bugs in what he called “the largest living insect heist” of all time! And he thought he had an idea who might’ve been the lead perpetrator…
Without giving a name, he reported his top suspect was an employee who the museum planned on firing. The suspected employee, after finding out what his future held, must have convinced others to help him go out with a bang.
Of course, John didn’t have the evidence to support his theory quite yet, and after realizing just how much had been stolen from him, he turned to the Philadelphia Police Department. Authorities set out to recover the stolen bugs.
And because the FBI used the Insectarium as a place to store insects that were evidence from ongoing cases, federal investigators hopped on to the perp’s trails, too. Within a few days, officers recovered about 5 percent of the stolen insects.
By September 11, about three weeks after the insect heist, authorities arrested four former employees for the deed — and had more in their sights. But John and his employees weren’t celebrating…
See, John didn’t approach the investigation with blood thirst and vengeance in his eyes. “I hope [the thieves] don’t get in too much trouble,” he said. “These people are idiots, but I don’t think they realize what they were doing.”
But more importantly, it was about the insects. “They took so many,” he said, “and unless they are opening up their own museum that we all are going to be excited to hear about, it would be impossible to provide the right maintenance for them…”
Logan Krum / Northeast Times
In other words, John hoped that the thieves had sold the bugs. Because otherwise, they were likely dead — a thought that broke his heart. “We want to make sure these creatures are treated with respect,” he said.
If nothing else, the compassion John showed for his insects proved he was the right guy to operate a museum for them. And in the aftermath of the heist, he started thinking about how the museum could ever recover — how he could continue his mission.
“Humanity has managed to name roughly 1.9 million organisms in the world,” John said. “And of that number, 1.1 million are insects. We plan to come back even stronger.” In terms of sheer monetary value, though, this heist paled in comparison to these next lucrative ventures.
Vincent Van Gogh’s Fortifications ($3 million): Thieves penetrated security at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery only to stuff all the stolen art into cardboard tubes and leave them in a bathroom with a handwritten note warning the school of their poor security. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Edenhurst Gallery murals ($4 million): In 2002, thieves cut alarms at the Edenhurst Gallery and descended from the roof to swipe panels A (below) and B of a mural commissioned for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The valuable panels are still missing.
Paul Cezzane’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise ($4.5 million): A thief took advantage of the lax New Year’s Eve security at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford—and the loud bangs of nearby fireworks—to steal this painting in about 10 minutes. It’s yet to be recovered.
Chillida’s “Topos IV” and more (about $6.6 million): Thieves stole a truck set to transport about 30 valuable works of art—including a Picasso drawing—from a warehouse in Getafe, Spain. Authorities only recovered a few of the other missing pieces stolen by these crafty criminals.
Gibson Stradivarius ($15 million): Handcrafted by the legendary Stradivarius, the violin was stolen twice—in 1919 and again in 1936, by a musician named Julian Altman, who confessed to the deed on his deathbed. As of 2018, respected violinist Joshua Bell was the instrument’s current owner.
Chris Lee / Deseret News
Caravaggio’s Nativity ($20 million): Authorities suspect the Sicilian mafia swiped it from the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in 1969, but no one knows for certain. A replica now hangs in the frame that once held the original work by the Italian Baroque artist.
Treasured pre-Columbian artifacts ($20 million): Two college dropouts climbed through Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology’s air vents on Christmas Eve to nab 124 artifacts like those below. Three years later, authorities caught them and recovered most of the loot.
Illicit Cultural Property
Picasso and Matisse paintings ($24 million): Empty spaces peppered the walls of the Netherlands’s Kunsthal Museum after thieves stole prized works in under three minutes. Once authorities apprehended the thieves, one of their mothers burned many of the paintings in an effort to hide evidence. Thanks, Mom.
Two Renoirs and a Rembrandt ($30 million): In 2000, thieves deployed no subtly when they held Sweden’s Stockholm Museum guards at gunpoint, snatched millions in artwork, and escaped in a boat. Eventually, authorities recovered the stolen art and arrested the leader.
Fabergé eggs ($33 million): In 1885, the Russian jewelry firm House of Fabergé created 50 golden, bejeweled eggs for Russian royalty—eight of which went missing during the 1917 Russian Revolution. Nearly a decade later, one turned up in an American scrap yard and sold at auction for $33 million.
Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers ($55 million): Stolen in 1977 from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo (left), Van Gogh’s painting was recovered in Kuwait and then stolen again in 2010. As of 2018, it’s still missing.
Madonna of the Yarnwinder ($65 million): Detectives Jack Doyle, left, and Robbie Graham, right, recovered the da Vinci painting in 2007, four years after two thieves carried it out of Drumlanrig Castle. The creative criminals did it in broad daylight by pretending to be police “practicing” extracting the painting.
Cellini Salt Cellar ($65 million): Thief Robert Mang swiped the masterpiece carved for King Francis I of France from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2003. He hid it in a lead box buried in an Austrian forest but confessed when friends recognized him in security footage released by authorities.
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris heist ($100 million): A single thief swiped five paintings—including Picasso’s Le Pigeon aux Petits-Pois, right—from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010. He hid the rolled-up paintings in garbage bins, which damaged them beyond repair.
Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man (about $100 million): German officials stole the painting from the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland, during World War II. Seventy-five years later, it’s still missing.
Munch’s The Scream ($120 million): In 1994, thieves easily stole the painting from the National Gallery in Oslo by smashing a window and climbing a ladder. They left a note that read “thanks for the poor security.” Authorities later caught them in a sting, but they got off on a technicality.
The Amber Room (about $303 million): During the 18th century, King Frederick of Prussia constructed a room of jewels and gold in Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg. Invading Germans destroyed the palace in 1941 and looted the room.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist ($500 million): Empty frames adorned the walls of the Massachusetts museum after two men disguised as Boston police officers thwarted museum security and pulled off the biggest heist in history. They were never caught.
The Mona Lisa (about $620 million): A handyman swiped the famous portrait—estimated to be worth over half a billion today—from the Louvre in 1911. Authorities spent two years searching for the stolen piece, and in their search, bolstered the painting’s notoriety and fame before finding it in 1913.
A Panel from Just Judges by Van Eyck (Unknown): The thief who filched one of the panels from the mural in Belgium’s Saint Bavo Cathedral demanded a ransom from authorities to return the piece. They denied payment, and the panel’s still missing. Who knows what the thief could’ve gotten for it?