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Thomas Gavin might be America's most prolific artifact thief — but the jig is up

This 1775 revolutionary-era rifle was Thomas Gavin's undoing.
This 1775 revolutionary-era rifle was Thomas Gavin's undoing.

Thomas Gavin may be one of the most prolific artifact thieves in U.S. history.

There are no movies or books about him, and no wild police chases or Indiana Jones-like adventures. In fact, until a couple of years ago no one even knew who he was.

But Gavin had been on a tear in the '60s and '70s, hitting nearly a dozen museums on the East Coast. He mostly stole antique firearms and stashed them in his hideout — a cluttered, non-descript barn in rural Pennsylvania.

Gavin's crime spree was so under the radar, no one caught on until 2018, when he tried to unload a rare, Revolutionary-era rifle to a local antiques dealer.

At first, Kelly Kinzle didn't know what he was looking at.

"I looked at it and I said, 'Well, this is a copy of a famous rifle,' " Kinzle recalls. "I said, 'This isn't the original — has to be a copy.' And he didn't say anything, didn't correct me, and I bought it literally for a copy of a famous gun."

But when Kinzle brought it home, he still had a feeling that bothered him and kept looking at the gun.

"I took it apart and when I took it apart. It was period. It was correct. I went to a reference book — I had bought an old out-of-print book — and I flipped through it and I found a photograph of the gun," he says. "And under the photograph, the caption was: 'Stolen from the Valley Forge Historical Society in 1970.' "

It wasn't just any old gun, but one of the few surviving rifles made by master gunsmith John Christian Oerter.

The copy Kinzle thought he bought for $4,000 was actually valued at $175,000.

The 1775 revolutionary-era rifle that was made by Pennsylvania master gunmaker John Christian Oerter.
/ Courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution
/
The 1775 Revolutionary-era rifle that was made by Pennsylvania master gunmaker John Christian Oerter.

The FBI, of course, was looking for the rifle. And when they questioned Gavin about how he got it, the long jig was up. That was in 2019, and now finally the saga has made its way to the courts and a ruling.

It's unclear how many items the now 78-year-old Gavin pilfered. It's been so long that a lot of the places he claimed to hit don't exist anymore, or they don't have a record of the thefts. And most of the statutes of limitations on the items he stole have expired.

In court last week, Gavin pleaded guilty to one count of disposal of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum. The judge took Gavin's age and declining health into consideration and, incredibly, sentenced Gavin to one day in prison for decades of theft.

Special Agent Jake Archer of the FBI Art Crime Team (left) and William Perthes of the Barnes Foundation examine the rifle during its repatriation ceremony.
/ Courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution
/
Special Agent Jake Archer of the FBI Art Crime Team (left) and William Perthes of the Barnes Foundation examine the rifle during its repatriation ceremony.

Still, Kinzle, who spent a lot of his own money to help solve this crime, isn't upset with Gavin's light sentence.

"I think he's trying to do the right thing now and and get some of these things back," Kinzle says. "Or at least, you know, nobody's ever going to be made whole.

"Personally, I wish I never got the call and never had to be involved in this. But you know, I think in the end, we're all going to come out better for it."

And as for the rifle? It's now on display the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, where it's on loan from the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.