(CN) - A federal judge ordered the return of a ceremonial Civil War-era Tiffany sword stolen from Brown University and later bought by a prominent arms collector.
Several dozen prominent New Yorkers had presented the sword from Tiffany & Co. to Col. Rush Hawkins in 1863 to recognize his service in the U.S. Civil War.
Originally encased in a box lined with blue velvet, the sword is inscribed with the names of battles of the 9th New York Volunteers, known as Hawkins' Zouaves.
Col. Hawkins' initials are inscribed on the guard, and the scabbard reads: "Presented to Col. Rush C. Hawkins of Hawkins' Zouaves, for his gallantry and devotion to his country, by fifty of his fellow-citizens of New York, May 1863." The figure of a Zouave soldier in uniform, standing watch, is carved into the sword's grip.
Hawkins, who became a lawyer after his military service, owned one of the world's largest private collections of early printed books, and endowed a memorial with his collection and Civil War memorabilia.
In 1948, a Rhode Island court conveyed the collection to Brown University, which closed the memorial for budgetary reasons between 1975 and 1977. Upon its reopening, an archivist found the case empty and the sword missing.
A collector notified Brown in 1991 that he had seen the sword at a show for arms collectors in Baltimore, and the university made a claim for the sword.
Before Brown could recover the sword, however, Donald Tharpe, an extensive collector of Civil War arms, bought it at an arms show in Gettysburg in 1992 for $35,000. He said was not aware of Brown's claim until 1994.
Tharpe nevertheless failed to contact Brown while holding the sword in his private collection and occasionally loaning it for display at Lee Hall Mansion in Newport News, Va.
A military historian who saw the sword at Lee Hall informed Brown in the early 2000s and encouraged the university to pursue its claim.
Brown waited until 2011 to sue Donald and Toni Tharpe, and U.S. District Judge Douglas Miller held a bench trial in Newport News.
On Tuesday, nearly 30 years after the sword's disappearance, Miller ordered its return to Brown.
"The evidence adduced at trial leads the court to conclude that the Tiffany sword was stolen from the memorial while the memorial building was closed from 1975 to 1977," the ruling states.
If the sword had been "removed for repair or restoration and then negligently or mistakenly lost as Tharpe suggests, it is highly unlikely that [its] protective case would have been left behind," Miller wrote. "Rather, it seems much more likely that the Tiffany sword would have been taken and transported in its presentation box in which it fit precisely and securely. Additionally, the fact that several other items were missing and unwrapped, with the packaging scattered, strongly suggests theft rather than removal for repair or some legitimate purpose."
Once establishing that the sword was stolen, the judge ruled that "the thief could not convey good title to anyone, and as a result, even Tharpe's good faith purchase for value from a later possessor could not establish title superior to Brown's."
Brown's delay in bringing legal action does not prejudice its claim to the sword, especially given that Tharpe himself contributed to the delay by not contacting Brown when he learned of the university's claim in 1994, Miller ruled.