A small piece of wood believed to be a relic from the cross on which Christ was crucified has been stolen from Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral, police said.
Experts said the stolen relic could be destined for a private art collection.
The piece is one of the oldest possessions of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It disappeared sometime between 10 a.m. June 30 and 8 a.m. July 1, according to a police report.
"The case holding the relic in place at the bottom of a crucifix had been pried open and the relic was removed along with a large piece of the case," the police report said.
Chris Marinello, head of the recovery team at the Art Loss Register, which tracks stolen art, compared the Catholic relic's disappearance to the theft of the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" (Work Shall Set You Free) sign from the main gate at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 2009. The sign was later recovered.
"There are ecclesiastical collectors out there and something like this could have been stolen to order," Marinello said. "There are just certain things you're going straight to hell if you steal and this is one of them."
New York Police Department Det. Mark Fishstein, who has investigated art theft for seven years, said it was difficult to predict what the thief would do with the relic.
"Each one of these cases is individual; we can't really generalize," he said. "It's not like there's a clearinghouse where these people go. Some people take things because they want to hold onto them. They never intend to sell them. Some people take things because they want to make a profit."
Dan Karson, an executive managing director at the security firm Kroll, said stolen artifacts often end up being in the hands of private collectors.
"They do try to sell it off into a black market that lies beneath the surface of the art collecting world," he said. "You can't deal in this stuff in the way that you used to be able to deal with it decades ago."
Karson said the thieves know where to deal.
"It's going into the hands of private collectors in Europe and Russia who have become extraordinarily wealthy in the last 20 years," he said. "A piece of art like a true relic might be able to find its way into the secret gallery of a plutocrat somewhere in a central European country where he can show it to a couple of friends and no one else."
Investigators believe the Boston relic was stolen by someone who visited the chapel during the day because there were no signs of forced entry. The chapel is adjacent to the main church.
"We are deeply troubled that this sacred relic was stolen, and we pray for those responsible," the Rev. Kevin J. O'Leary, rector of the cathedral, told The Boston Globe. "We ask the faithful of the Archdiocese of Boston to join the cathedral's parishioners in praying every day for its return.''
The Globe reported that investigators were checking eBay to see if the relic might turn up. A search today of eBay found a dozen items listed as true cross relics with price tags ranging from $105.49 to $3,800.
The relic, which arrived in Boston in the late 18th century, was a gift to a French missionary priest, the Rev. Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus, who later became the first bishop of Boston.
The item was given to Cheverus by Abbe Claude de la Poterie, the first pastor of the cathedral, who was also a French priest, as well as a onetime chaplain in the French Navy. De la Poterie celebrated the first public Mass in Boston on Nov. 2, 1788.
The relic is one of many around the world that are said to be parts of the "True Cross.'' Many churches have claimed to have relics of the cross since the 4th century but the authenticity is often disputed.
Boston's first Catholic church, completed on Franklin Street in 1803, was named the Church of the Holy Cross. The church was designated a cathedral in 1808, when the Diocese of Boston was established. The current cathedral, on Washington Street in the South End, was completed in 1875.
People visiting the chapel often stop to pray before the relic. On Good Friday, the cross that holds the relic is brought into the cathedral, and people step forward and venerate the cross by genuflecting and kneeling in remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus.