Joseph Vogele was driving through Rock Island’s historic Chippiannock Cemetery on April 5, 1976, when he noticed something wrong with one of the mausoleums. There was a bright spot where a window should have been.
Upon investigation, Vogele, the cemetery superintendent, discovered the mausoleum had been broken into and its stained-glass window stolen.
He checked another mausoleum — one built by the lumber baron Denkmann family — and found that it, too, had been burglarized, the entry gate forced open and the padlock broken off.
And inside he saw that its window also was missing. On the ledge under the opening were some tools that thieves had used to remove the window— a valuable Tiffany made about 1905.
With no fingerprints or other physical evidence to go on, Rock Island police contacted the FBI, which has agents who specialize in the investigation and recovery of stolen art, but solving the crime did not look promising.
On Wednesday, however, the Tiffany window will be the center of attention as it is unveiled for the first time in its new location at the Figge Art Museum in downtown Davenport.
And museum curators will recall the story of how the window was recovered and returned to the Quad-Cities nearly 20 years after its disappearance, thanks to the dogged efforts of Vogele’s son, Greg, who took over as cemetery superintendent about a year after the theft.
Tenacity credited with recovery
The crime scene at Chippiannock that spring morning “looked like a very professional job,” recalls Rock Island police Lt. Steve Harder, who had been on the force only a week or two when he was called out along with two other officers.
“The windows (from the two mausoleums) were removed carefully,” he says. “We investigated the scene and the tools left behind, but there was no physical evidence that would lead to who did it.”
Vogele and police guessed that whoever took the windows placed them on plywood, loaded them into a vehicle and drove off.
“Many times, you can drive up in here and you won’t see anybody else for a long time,” Vogele says of the 85-acre cemetery.
When he took over as superintendent from his father, Vogele made it his personal mission to try to find the window.
He figured that whoever stole it eventually would attempt to sell the piece, so he began sending letters — maybe a dozen in all — complete with pictures to auction houses and museums with Tiffany collections that he thought might be likely purchasers.
Nearly 20 years after the theft, Vogele happened to write to The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Fla., after reading a newspaper article about its extensive Tiffany collection.
That was the breakthrough.
“In a few months, I got a letter from the attorney of the museum saying, ‘We believe we know who has your window.’ And he gave a name and address in Jamaica, N.Y.”
Proof was needed for return
Getting the window returned to Rock Island took some doing, though.
The Denkmann family had to supply documentation — photos and measurements — to prove that the window was, in fact, theirs. Experts from the FBI’s photographic unit compared photos and the window to find imperfections that were the same between the two, says former FBI Special Agent Gary Karns, who was with the Moline FBI office at the time.
A court order had to be obtained to take the window from the New York couple who had purchased it from someone in Colorado and were contesting its repossession, says Karns, who is now retired and living in Orion, Ill.
Coincidentally, it was Rock Island’s Harder who made arrangements for the window’s return to Rock Island, where it was stored in a bank vault before cracks that occurred after its theft were repaired.
A large diagonal crack through the largest piece of glass and smaller cracks in the nameplate were fixed in 1999 by a professional Tiffany glass conservator hired by the Denkmann family.
The family also decided that the window should go to a secure location, so a permanent loan agreement was drawn up with the then-Davenport Museum of Art.
The window was displayed for several years at the museum’s previous location on 12th Street, but it has been in storage for nearly two years since the move to the Figge, awaiting the building of a light box that will show off its radiant colors and the complex layering of glass to create texture.
The window will be in the permanent gallery on the second floor, in front of a west window. Full-spectrum fluorescent lights in the box behind it will simulate sunlight.
Was theft part of a grave-robbing ring?
What happened to the window between the time it was taken from Rock Island and recovered in New York is unknown. No one has ever been charged with its theft.
“Minus solvability, the case was officially closed,” Harder says.
But the theft occurred at a time when the graves of wealthy families in largely unprotected Victorian-era and early 20th-century cemeteries across the country were being looted for windows, statues, bronzes and other antiques.
It is possible that whoever hit Rock Island was part of one of those rings.
In 1999, just two years after the window was returned to Rock Island, a man named Alastair Duncan, who was a leading authority on Tiffany windows and had written several books, was convicted in New York on charges of dealing in stolen mausoleum art, according to an article in The New York Times. Duncan was aware of the location of most of the windows; he had written a book that included the title, “a partial list of Tiffany windows by state.”
A federal court found Duncan guilty of conspiring with a grave robber and antiques dealer to pilfer rare stained-glass windows from cemetery mausoleums and resell them overseas for a hefty profit.
Testimony during the trial offered “a riveting account of the underbelly of the antiques world, a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ” community populated by “bottom-feeders and erudite experts,” according to the Times.
Art and cultural property crime has now become the world’s fourth-largest category of international crime, a growing black market that generates losses of up to $6 billion annually and a problem that is garnering increased attention from the FBI, according to Special Agent Robert K. Whittman, who spoke recently at the Morse museum in Florida.
Luck played a part, too
“We credit Greg Vogele with finding this window,” says Harder, who is now a watch commander for the Rock Island Police Department. “He’s the one who made the exceptional effort.”
Vogele also knows he was incredibly lucky on several fronts, including the fact that the person who ended up with the window tried to sell it to a legitimate museum rather than a private collector or someone from overseas.
Locating the window required more luck than it might with the ability today to send instant messages and pictures over the Internet to multiple — even hundreds of — recipients at once.
In those pre-Internet days, Vogele had to send paper letters and photos, and he had to find addresses of auction houses by looking them up in the library. There was no “Google” searching or any electronic databases of stolen art works, such as the Art Loss Register, a site maintained by a small private company in London that lists 180,000 items stolen or missing around the world.
“It was a different world back in the ’70s,” he says.
The other window taken from Chippiannock that day has not been found, but Vogele has not given up hope.
“It’s still out there,” he says.
Alma Gaul can be contacted at (563) 383-2324 or email@example.com.
Denkmann family worked in lumber
The Denkmanns are descendants of Frederick Denkmann, who came to what is now the Illinois Quad-City area in the mid-1800s and eventually partnered with his brother-in-law, Frederick Weyerhauser, to form the Rock Island Lumber and Manufacturing Co.
In 1864, they acquired standing timber in northern Wisconsin, and when the Civil War ended and the Homestead Act opened vast tracts of government land to farmers, they took advantage of the unprecedented opportunity to grow their company.
As Midwest timber began to dwindle, the company moved west, settling in Washington, where Weyerhauser bought 900,000 acres of timberland from a railroad, and the company became the largest lumber concern in the world.
Weyerhauser is now a multinational corporation based in Federal Way, Wash.
Frederick Denkmann and his wife, Anna, and five other family members are buried in the mausoleum at Chippiannock Cemetery, Rock Island.
Denkmann’s daughter, Susanne, built the fine home that is now the Hauberg Civic Center in Rock Island. It carries the Hauberg name because Susanne married John Hauberg shortly after the home was built. Their son, John Hauberg Jr., died in 2002.
Family descendants are scattered throughout the country, including a few in the Quad-City area.
Window incorporates common theme
The Louis Comfort Tiffany window being unveiled Wednesday at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport is called the “River of Life,” a 40- by 50-inch piece made about 1905 on a commission for the Denkmann family mausoleum.
It is a confirmed Tiffany work because it was included in a list of windows published by the Tiffany Studios in New York in 1910.
Tiffany frequently used the “River of Life” motif in memorial windows. It is a figureless composition consisting of a river meandering through a valley with mountains and foliage framed by tall trees.
In discussions with several lighting designers and after examining the window’s original installation site in the mausoleum, the Figge curatorial staff led by Michelle Robinson decided that because natural light would not always be available indoors, the best option would be to backlight the window with full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs.
A piece of sandblasted glass was placed behind it to block out the distinct shapes of the fluorescent tubes, which are museum pieces in and of themselves since they are no longer in production.
The Gothic medium of stained glass enjoyed a revival at the turn of the 20th century, and the two most talented artists were John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Born and raised in New York, Tiffany trained as a painter but began in the 1870s to design decorative arts, founding in 1879 an interior decorating business that grew into a gigantic commercial enterprise with large teams of designers.
Tiffany and La Farge both created pictorial effects with layers of modulated glass, much as a watercolorist would use washes or an oil painter would employ glazes. They also used the leading as part of the design.
Tiffany Studios went bankrupt in 1933, the year Tiffany died.
Visiting the Figge
The Figge Art Museum is at 225 W. 2nd St., Davenport. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for those 60 years and older, $6 for students with identification and $4 for children ages 3-12. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. The museum is closed Mondays.