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A John Christian Oerter Flintlock long gun, 1774, which belongs to the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Fifty Years Ago, a Thief Stole Antique Firearms From More Than a Dozen Museums. Now He’s Going to Jail—For One Day

An aging Pennsylvania man who admitted to stealing antique weapons from nearly a dozen east coast museums across more than two decades in the 1960s and ‘70s is finally being punished for his crimes.

His sentence? One day in jail.

The 78-year-old man, Thomas Gavin, owned up to his thefts—which altogether add up to perhaps one of the biggest crime sprees in American history—this year after FBI agents connected him to one particularly significant item: a Revolutionary War-era flintlock rifle designed by master gunsmith John Christian Oerter that had gone missing from the Valley Forge National Historical Park in 1971.  

Fortunately for Gavin, the statutes of limitations on many of his other thefts had long since expired, and in court, he faced just one count of disposal of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum. The charge came after he tried to sell the Oerter rifle to a U.K.-based collector in 2018 for $4,000—a fraction of its estimated $175,000 worth. 

A John Christian Oerter Flintlock long gun, 1774, which belongs to the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

A John Christian Oerter Flintlock long gun, 1774, which belongs to the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

The charge, to which Gavin pleaded guilty in July, comes with a maximum 10-year prison sentence. However, because of the man’s age and declining health, District Court Judge Mark A. Kearney settled on a heavily truncated prison sentence, one year of house arrest, two additional years of probation, and nearly $50,000 in fines.

“You were on quite a tear as a young man stealing artifacts and not getting caught,” Kearney said at the sentencing, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But here’s the interesting part: But for your disposal of those items in 2018, you wouldn’t be sitting here. I think that’s a fascinating gap in our criminal justice system.”

Hunched over in a wheelchair, his breathing labored, Gavin said, “I’m sorry for all this trouble. I never really thought about it back then, and now it’s all come out. I didn’t think it would make a hell of a lot of difference.”

After the four-hour proceeding last week, the man was wheeled off to serve his time.

Over the 20-some years he was active, Gavin pilfered rifles, revolvers, and other historic artifacts made in the 18th and 19th centuries. Among them was a firearm owned by John James Audubon, filched from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

The Oerter gun was likely his biggest prize. Manufactured in 1775, the five-foot-long weapon is one of only two flintlock rifles bearing the gunmaker’s name in existence today. The other belongs to the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England. 

“Stealing an artifact from a museum—literally a piece of American history—is a serious federal offense,” U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said in a statement.  “After four decades, justice finally caught up with this defendant.”


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