40 years after stealing historic rifle from museum, Pennsylvania man sold it, feds say


A 78-year-old man was sentenced to a day in prison after pleading guilty to selling a stolen antique rifle, officials say.

More than 40 years after authorities say a Pennsylvania man stole a historic rifle from a local museum, he sold it alongside other stolen artifacts.

Thomas Gavin, 78, of Pottstown, pleaded guilty to “disposal of an object of cultural heritage stolen from a museum” in July 2021 after selling the American Revolution era rifle in 2018, according to a Nov. 23 news release from the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He has since been sentenced to one day in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. The first year will be served as home confinement.

The defense attorney representing Gavin did not immediately respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News; however, in a letter to the judge, attorney Harvey Sernovitz described him as “a decent, generous and caring man, and is so regarded by all who know him.”

Throughout his life, Gavin oversaw (*40*) including Mount Pleasant Plantation in Virginia, and set up many antique shows, according to his defense attorney.

“Tom is a collector of all manner of old things,” the letter says. “Every square inch of his barn is jammed full with a lifetime of things he bought at barn sales and flea markets. It contains everything from old typewriters, sewing machines, clocks, steam engines and scales to old cars.

“On July 5, 2018, he sold the rifle to an antiques dealer for a small fraction of its worth. The dealer who bought the rifle described Tom as a ‘hoarder’ rather than a collector.”

That antique rifle was a rare Christian Oerter Rifle from 1775, according to the government’s sentencing memorandum.

“The rifle is known to be one of two such rifles to have survived with its original flint mechanism bearing the maker’s name, site and date of manufacture, and is worth in excess of $175,000,” according to the news release. “The other Christian Oerter rifle is in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England.”

Gavin was interviewed by law enforcement in 2020, two years after he had sold it, according to court documents. There, he admitted to stealing the rifle and keeping the artifact for 40 years before selling it.

“Thomas Gavin kept the stolen Oerter rifle squirreled away for decades, depriving all of us of this Revolutionary piece of our past,” Jacqueline Maguire, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division, said in the news release. “It is way past time for Mr. Gavin to be held accountable for his actions..”

The stolen items will be returned to the museums where they were taken from, records show.

“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 the news release. “After four decades, justice finally caught up with this defendant. Thanks to the work of our law enforcement partners, the Christian Oerter rifle is safely back where it can be enjoyed by all Americans.”

Gavin was also fined $25,000 and ordered to pay $23,385 in restitution.

Kaitlyn Alanis is a McClatchy National Real-Time Reporter based in Kansas. She is an agricultural communications & journalism alumna of Kansas State University.

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