The documentary Resurrect Dead unearthed the decades-old mystery surrounding Toynbee tiles. These strange, linoleum mosaics were found in a number cities across North and South America, and their cryptic message calling for earth’s dead to be resurrected on Jupiter fascinated the few people who managed notice them.
But now that the tiles have been cemented into annals of art history, thieves are looking to cash in on their potential value. And in a strange, roundabout way, those hoping to profit from the tiles could actually be helping to preserve the Toynbee legacy for future generations.
Hidden City contributor and subject of the Resurrect Dead film, Steve Weinik, has been following the tiles for years. He and others who’ve investigated the mystery have recently received eye-witness reports that thieves are attempting to steal the tiles- with varying degrees of success.
In his Hidden City article, Weinik reports that a local photographer spotted two young males with knives attempting to “pry up” the tiles in Center City. These same two people have allegedly been seen lifting tiles a total of three times throughout Philadelphia. Weinik also reports that a St. Louis security guard spotted a man removing a Toynbee tile. When asked what he was doing, the man allegedly responded that “it was going to be worth a lot of money.”
That man was apparently successful, as the tile has since disappeared.
Toynbee tiles have stood the test of time (most tiles were installed in the mid 90s, though some date back to the mid 80s), but their lifespan is undoubtedly finite, as constant wear and tear and re-paving will ostensibly bury or destroy all of the tiles in due time. Strangely enough, this means that every stolen tile is actually being saved from its inevitable demise.
Although Weinik, a veritable expert on the subject, does not condone their unauthorized removal, he does admit that “at some level they’re doing a service in preserving the physical artifact.” That said, Weinik does hope to see their eventual preservation, even suggesting a possible way to display them, “I envision a series of Toynbee Idea lightbox displays, preserved tiles inside, attached to street lampposts, buildings, and bus shelters around town. At the very least, an interested museum or preservation body can work with the Streets Department to save a small collection of tiles before scheduled street repairs.”