The U.S. Government Is Suing for a Set of Lighthouse Lenses

The lenses could be worth up to $600,000

fresnel lens
A Fresnel lens from the Boon Island Lighthouse off of southern Maine. InAweofGod'sCreation via Flickr

For decades, maritime historians and officials from the United States Coast Guard have wondered what might have happened to two antique lighthouse lenses that disappeared from their original homes. The lenses in question are valuable artifacts of maritime history. Dating back to the 1880s, these lenses look kind of like large, glass beehives and can weigh hundreds of pounds. Now, after years of hunting, officials say they have finally tracked them down to a private collector—and they’re suing him to get them back.

Named for their inventor, physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel, these lenses were part of a revolutionized lighthouse technology that allowed ships farther out at sea to get advance warning of hazardous conditions, Eileen Kinsella writes for artnet News. However, Fresnel lenses were also delicate and many were lost or destroyed when the Coast Guard decommissioned and updated its lighthouses during the 20th century to make way for more advanced automated systems.

“Lenses just weren’t valued back then like they are today,” Coast Guard curator Arlyn Danielson tells Robert Snell for the Detroit News. “They are pieces of art.”

Over the decades, many of these Fresnel lenses made their way into the hands of private collectors and maritime museums that could care for them properly. However, Coast Guard officials have long been on the lookout for two lenses that were originally installed in the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in Portland, Maine, and the Belle Isle Lighthouse on Michigan’s Detroit River, Snell reports. Both lenses disappeared from their homes decades ago, and according to a complaint filed by the Justice Department on Coast Guard’s behalf, they have resurfaced in the hands of a maritime antiques collection owned by a man named Steven Gronow.

Gronow operates a private collection called the Maritime Exchange Museum, which holds and leases out objects and artifacts to museums. While he refuses to confirm or deny whether he does own the two lenses in question, Gronow argues the government is just trying to bully a preservationist now that they know how valuable Fresnel lenses can be, the Associate Press reports.

“It’s interesting now that because someone had the forethought to care for the lenses all these years — instead of smashing them to bits — that the government is coming out of the shadows and demanding they be returned without compensation,” Gronow tells Snell. “It’s just the government’s bully pulpit.”

While the Justice Department isn’t alleging that Gronow stole the lenses himself, officials maintain they are still rightful Coast Guard property. According to the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1996, the agency “shall retain all right, title, and interest of the United States in and to any historical artifact, including any lens or lantern, that is associated with the lighthouses,” Kinsella reports. In this case, government officials say the lenses should be returned to the historical societies that now run the defunct lighthouses as important artifacts of local history.

“Nobody had a clue where it was,” Keith Thompson, who runs the nonprofit in charge of the Portland lighthouse, tells Snell. “In a crate, destroyed, thrown overboard—we didn’t know.”

The lawsuit is still ongoing.