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He Admits to a Dozen Museum Heists, Gets Day in Jail

Pennsylvania's Thomas Gavin helped trace stolen firearms after confession
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 24, 2021 1:35 PM CST
He Admits to a Dozen Museum Heists, Gets Day in Jail
The 1775 rifle made in Pennsylvania by Johann Christian Oerter.   (Museum of the American Revolution via Facebook)

(Newser) – A Pennsylvania man will spend exactly one day in jail after admitting to stealing historic artifacts from more than a dozen museums in at least four states. Montgomery County's Thomas Gavin busted into museums along the US East Coast in the 1960s and '70s, taking mostly antique firearms, which were housed for five decades in a cluttered barn on his property in Pottstown, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, labeling the 78-year-old as "one of the most prolific museum thieves in the nation's history." Most institutions had no record of the thefts, or were unaware anything had disappeared. In fact, FBI agents learned about the string of crimes from Gavin himself.

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Agents first linked Gavin to the 1971 theft of a 1775 flintlock rifle valued at $175,000 from Valley Forge National Historical Park after he sold the weapon for just $4,000 in 2018. It's one of only two known rifles to be signed and dated by Pennsylvania master gunmaker Johann Christian Oerter; the other is housed in the British Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, per NBC News. Gavin, who'd made a living renovating historic properties, then opened up about taking a rifle once owned by naturalist John James Audubon from Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. He also described thefts from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the American Swedish History Museum, and other institutions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and New York, per the Inquirer.

Gavin, who helped identify the weapons to aid their return, wasn't charged in any of the thefts as they did not meet the $5,000 threshold for federal crimes, or else the statute of limitations had expired. But he did plead guilty to one count of disposal of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum, related to the flintstock rifle. He could've faced up to 10 years in prison, though US District Judge Mark A. Kearney cited his declining health, including a recent stroke, in sentencing him to one day in jail, one year of house arrest, and two additional years of probation on Tuesday. "I'm sorry for all this trouble," Gavin told the judge, who also applied a $25,000 fine and $23,485 restitution order. "I never really thought about it back then, and now it's all come out." (Read more museum theft stories.)

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