In 1945, Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science realized that 14 astrolabes were missing from its collection. Curator Robert T. Gunther had arranged for storage of the museum’s objects during the war, but both he and the janitor who had helped him had died in 1940. The missing instruments, the finest of the museum’s ancient and medieval astrolabes, were irreplaceable, the only examples of their kind. Where had Gunther hidden them?
The museum consulted the Oxford city police and Scotland Yard, who searched basements and storerooms throughout the city. The Times, the Daily Mail, and the Thames Gazette publicized the story. Inquiries were extended to local taxi drivers and 108 country houses. At Folly Bridge, Gunther’s house, walls were inspected, flagstones lifted, and wainscoting prised away. A medium and a sensitive were even consulted, to no avail. Finally the detective inspector in charge of the case reviewed the evidence and composed a psychological profile of Gunther, a man he had never met:
Clever professor type, a bit irascible, who didn’t get on too well with his colleagues. Single minded. Lived for the Museum. Hobby in Who’s Who ‘… founding a Museum’. Used to gloat over the exhibits and looked upon them as his own creation. Never allowed anyone else to handle them. Reticent, even secretive. Never told anyone what he what he was going to do. Didn’t trust them, perhaps. Not even his friends the Rumens, who would have offered their car to move the things. Had original ideas though. Safe from blast below street level. Germans would never bomb Oxford. Why, its total war damage was £100 and that from one of our own shells. How right he was. He never expected to die then. Believed he’d live to 90. Hadn’t made any plans; like most of us he thought he might get bumped off when the war started. That’s what he was telling his son in those letters. There was only one conclusion with a man like that anyhow: he’d never let the things out of his reach if he could have helped it. Didn’t even take the trouble to pack his own treasures away in Folly Bridge.
In 1948 the new curator found the missing instruments — they were right “within reach” in the museum’s basement. Gunther had disguised their crate with a label reading “Eighteenth-Century Sundials,” and it had evaded detection throughout the searches.
From A.E. Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, vol. XV, 1967, 303-309.