Historic Revolvers and Native American Belt Stolen Decades Ago Returned to Area Museums | Local news


Over the course of several years, half a century ago, several valuable historical weapons and other artifacts disappeared from six regional museums, including one in Manheim Township and one in Hershey.

They had been stolen by a man who kept them secretly – amid a jumble of flea market antiques, old typewriters, cars, clocks and steam engines – in a barn on his property of Pottsville for decades.

Last week, more than a dozen of these artifacts recovered as a result of an investigation by the FBI and other authorities, returned home.

At a ceremony at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia on Friday, Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum curator Jennifer Royer and site administrator David Blackburn stood among a group of regional museum officials. while their long-missing artifacts were repatriated. to their establishments.

And representatives from the Hershey Story Museum – known as the Hershey Museum when its artifacts were stolen in the 1960s and 1970s – will travel to Philadelphia next month to receive four revolvers and a silver Navajo concho medallion belt at return to the museum collection.

“Several years ago, out of the blue, we received a phone call from the FBI’s Artistic Crimes Unit, asking us questions and essentially informing us that a suspect was in custody,” Blackburn said after the call. ceremony, “and the materials seized, including the two guns that were stolen” at Landis Valley.

“We were devastated, to say the least,” said Blackburn.

The two weapons Royer will process and list in the Landis Valley collection are pre-Civil War Colt revolvers, Blackburn said.

One was an Army Colt from 1860, and the other from the early 1850s, he added.

Fifty years ago, “both guns were taken from the museum, and more specifically from the building we call the Gun Shop,” Blackburn said. “This is one of the original buildings that the (brothers Henry and George Landis) built before they sold it to the state. … A number of weapons from the Landis brothers’ collection were on display … in the Gun Shop.

“Our assumption is that (the guns) were taken during daylight hours,” Blackburn said. “They were found missing … fairly quickly. The crime was reported and that’s it, ”until the recent investigation.

The Landis brothers established a small museum in the 1920s with their collection of 18th and 19th century artifacts related to their Pennsylvania German heritage. They sold the collection to the state in 1953.

Revolvers and a Navajo belt, stolen decades ago, will soon be returned to the Hershey Story Museum.

“I understand these revolvers were part of the larger collection of weaponry that the Landis brothers themselves collected …”, said Blackburn. “So this provenance and this connection with our founders is also what made these pieces extremely important. “

Valerie Seiber, senior director of collections at The Hershey Story museum, said her museum also received a call a few years ago about long-lost artifacts.

“We were contacted by a Detective from Upper Merion Township, and he was investigating all of the historic thefts that had occurred at the Hershey Museum,” Seiber said. “We started working with them and providing them with the information we had in our files. “

The artifacts were removed from the Hershey Museum in 1965, 1970 and 1972, Seiber said.

“Two of them are five-shot revolvers, known as the Ells percussion, and they have patents dating back to 1854 and 1857,” Seiber said. “The third revolver is a six-shot revolver from Pettingills, and it has a patent date of 1850 on the barrel.

The other artifact stolen from Hershey was a silver medallion belt. “made by the Navajo people,” Seiber said. “It was stolen in 1972.”

The belt was part of a Native American collection at the Hershey American Indian Museum, a precursor to the Hershey Museum established in 1933.

“It was truly unique for a community the size of Hershey to be able to display articles that were truly from the contiguous United States,” Seiber said. “We still have the American Indian collection here at the museum, it’s just not on display.

“It’s really amazing,” Seiber said of the artifact recovery. “Some of these things have been missing from the museum’s collection for over 50 years now, and the fact that they have been recovered – we are very grateful for the hard work of the Upper Merion Township detectives and the criminal team. from the FBI, for their work on the case.

Neither museum has immediate plans to display the recovered artifacts, although Blackburn said staff have discussed how the Colt revolvers might one day be displayed – possibly in 2023.

Other museums that returned artefacts last Friday included the Swedish American Historical Museum in Philadelphia; the Mercer Museum, Doylestown; and York County History Center, York.

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Revolvers and a Navajo belt, stolen decades ago, will soon be returned to the Hershey Story Museum.

Guilty plea, one day sentence

The thefts of artifacts were the work of Thomas Gavin. After admitting last year to stealing a valuable 18th century rifle and other artifacts, in July, at the age of 78, Thomas Gavin of Pottstown “pleaded guilty to one count of disposing of ‘a cultural heritage object stolen from a museum,’ the New York Times reported.

A U.S. District Judge sentenced Gavin in November to one day in prison, one year of house arrest, two years of probation, over $ 23,000 in restitution and a fine of $ 25,000, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer .

In imposing the sentence, the judge noted Gavin’s age and poor health, and that the statutes of limitations for some of the other thefts Gavin reported had expired years ago, the Inquirer reported.

Gavin offered no real explanation for the thefts during his conviction.

While allegedly stealing objects from museums across the East Coast in the 1960s and 1970s, Gavin was a family man who carried out historic preservation and restoration work on properties and estates, the Inquirer.

Prosecutors said he took dozens of rifles, pistols, revolvers and other historic artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries, including a rifle that belonged to naturalist John James Audubon.

The loot remained in Gavin’s barn for decades, until he decided to sell a trunk full of antique pistols, Hershey’s Navajo belt, and an extremely rare rifle made in 1775 by Pennsylvania master gunsmith Johann Christian. Oerter from the Moravian colony of Christian’s Spring, near Nazareth, Northampton County.

Gavin sold the items for just over $ 27,000 – far less than their value – to an antique dealer in New Oxford. The dealer researched the rifle and discovered that it was a weapon manufactured by Oerter stolen from Valley Forge State Park in October 1971. It had been loaned to the Valley Forge Historical Society, according to a 2019 article in the New York Times. . The collection of this organization is now housed at the Museum of the American Revolution.

When the antique dealer turned the rare rifle over to the FBI, the Philadelphia Division of the FBI Artistic Crime Team, Upper Merion Township Police, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania began their investigation.

The Oerter rifle was returned to the Valley Forge collection at the Museum of the American Revolution in 2019 and has since been on display to the public.

“I’m sure there is a lot more information about Mr. Gavin’s motivations and reasons for doing what he did,” Seiber said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know. But we’re just so grateful that these items are coming back to the museum. “

“It was fascinating. I’ve never been in anything like this, ”Blackburn said of the repatriation ceremony in Philadelphia.

“For something that was considered a cold case (…) to suddenly be rediscovered over the last few years and then come home, it’s really fantastic,” said Blackburn. “This is good news at a time when we need good news.”


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