The only thing more incredible than Thomas Gavin’s career as an art thief was the punishment he received for his crimes.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It’s not exactly an “Antiques Roadshow” moment.
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KEN SANDERS: Your hymnal would sell between 40- to $50,000.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, gosh.
SHAPIRO: But one incredible find did reveal the man who may be one of the most prolific artifact thieves in U.S. history.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Thomas Gavin went on a tear in the ’60s and ’70s, hitting nearly a dozen museums on the East Coast. Mostly, he stole antique firearms then stashed them in his hideout – a cluttered, nondescript barn in rural Pennsylvania.
SHAPIRO: 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. Kelly Kinzle didn’t know what he was looking at at first.
KELLY KINZLE: I looked at it and I said, well, this is a copy of a famous rifle. 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.
SHAPIRO: But by the time he brought it home…
KINZLE: It bothered me, and I kept looking at it. 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. Under the photograph, the caption was stolen from the Valley Forge Historical Society in 1970.
KELLY: So not 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 grand was actually valued at $175,000. And the FBI, of course, was looking for the rifle, and when they questioned Gavin about how he got it, the long jig was up.
SHAPIRO: 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 have a record of the thefts. And most of the statutes of limitations on the items he stole had expired.
KELLY: In court, 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.
SHAPIRO: Still, Kelly Kinzle, who spent a lot of his own money to help solve this crime, is not upset with Gavin’s light sentence.
KINZLE: I think he’s trying to do the right thing now and get some of these things back 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 I think in the end, we’re all going to come out better for it.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And as for the rifle, you can go see it. It’s now on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ISRAEL NASH SONG, “RAIN PLANS”)
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