CHICAGO — Stolen documents, military medals and other artifacts valued at about $5 million – including letters signed by Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson – were returned Wednesday to Chicago's Polish Museum after being found in the basement of a home decades after they went missing.

The more than 120 items, which were returned following an FBI investigation, include letters and documents dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, seals, military medals and Nazi propaganda from World War II. The pieces also included documentation about Napoleon, George Washington, John Adams and American Revolution hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

Museum president Maria Ciesla said she couldn't catch her breath when she received the phone call that the items, missing since the 1970s and 1980s, were located.

"This is something that we had dreamed and hoped for for so many years," Ciesla said. "It is so important for us to have this safely back not only for the rich Polish history but also for the wonderful American history. It is so important to the world stage."

Officials said Chicago coin and antiques dealer Harlan Berk notified the museum last October that his office had purchased historic items it had traced to the institution. The museum contacted the FBI, which started an investigation.

Berk told the FBI that the sellers said they found the artifacts in the basement of a Chicago house where they were tenants. FBI Art Crime Team investigators found that the residence was owned by the mother of a former Polish museum curator. The FBI recovered additional artifacts and documents from the home.

No charges were filed because the FBI couldn't determine who took the items from the museum or exactly when they were taken. The statute of limitations in the case also had run out.

Now the museum will catalogue the items, which likely will go on exhibit in the next few years. The museum is asking for anyone else with artifacts to come forward and return them as well.

"There's probably hundreds of documents still out there," Ciesla said.

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Online:

http://www.polishmuseumofamerica.org/

CLICK through images of the recovered stolen goods:
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  • Artifacts

    Close to five million dollars worth of stolen artifacts were returned to the Chicago Polish Museum Wednesday, including these medals.

  • Michael Kosanovich

    Chicago FBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Michael Kosanovich, speaks at a news conference Wednesday, June 20, 2012, in Chicago as more than 120 stolen artifacts missing for decades _ including letters with the signatures of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and American Revolution hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko _ were returned to Chicago's Polish Museum of America by the FBI. The items include letters and documents dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, seals, military medals and Nazi propaganda from World War II. The pieces, which the FBI valued at about $5 million, also included documentation about Napoleon, George Washington, John Adams and Polish kings. FBI officials say the pieces only resurfaced last October, when Berk notified the museum that his office had purchased historic items that it had traced to the institution. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • This photo taken Wednesday, June 20, 2012, at FBI Headquarters in Chicago, shows a letter written by American Revolution hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko in September of 1798, just one of the more than 120 stolen artifacts missing for decades from the Chicago Polish Museum of America _ including letters with the signatures of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Kosciuszko that were returned to the Museum by the FBI on Wednesday. The items include letters and documents dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, seals, military medals and Nazi propaganda from World War II. The pieces, which the FBI valued at about $5 million, also included documentation about Napoleon, George Washington, John Adams and Polish kings. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)