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Stolen antique gun is returned to Museum of the American Revolution in Philly

Maria Thackston, (left) vice president of the Chubb insurance company, turned the stolen 1770s musket over to Scott Stephenson, president and CEO of the Museum of the American Revolution, after the gun was recovered by the FBI.
Peter Crimmins
/
WHYY
Maria Thackston, (left) vice president of the Chubb insurance company, turned the stolen 1770s musket over to Scott Stephenson, president and CEO of the Museum of the American Revolution, after the gun was recovered by the FBI.

An antique gun from the Revolutionary War stolen over 50 years ago has been recovered and turned over to the Museum of the American Revolution.

A .78 caliber, smooth-bore musket made in the 1770s had been part of the collection of the Valley Forge Historical Society, which experienced a string of robberies in the 1960s. Dozens of items disappeared, most of them historic guns. This gun was taken during a particularly brash burglary in 1968.

“This amazing piece of American history came from a particular heist where many other weapons were stolen in a single night,” said special agent Jake Archer of the FBI Art Crime Team.

The original owner of the gun is not known, nor in what battle it may have seen combat. Museum conservators will dismantle the musket and closely inspect its parts for clues. In the pre-industrial era of the Revolutionary War, there was no mass production of weapons. Each gun was made by hand with unique attributes and maker marks.

“It is an amalgamation of parts from a couple different types of weapons. They’re cobbling together what they can to get ready for this military conflict,” said museum president and CEO Scott Stephenson. “It has a lug on the front of the barrel that’s for fixing a bayonet. That’s one of the keys that we know this was intended for hunting people, not animals.”

Stephenson donned white gloves before handling the weapon for the first time. Upon touching it, he immediately got a feeling for the gun’s origin: the gun’s wrist — the wooden section between the butt and the flintlock — was shaped in a distinctive diamond contour.

With a historian’s Spidey sense, Stephenson’s palm had felt a similar wrist on another gun in the museum’s collection.

“You can’t do that with a photograph,” Stephenson said. “I’m thinking these two had been born in the same shop. Stay tuned for the answer to that.”

Guns of the Revolutionary War were uniquely made by hand. The stolen musket could be identified by the number on its brass butt plate, ”No. 89,” likely made by a Rhode Island gunsmith.
Peter Crimmins
/
WHYY
Guns of the Revolutionary War were uniquely made by hand. The stolen musket could be identified by the number on its brass butt plate, ”No. 89,” likely made by a Rhode Island gunsmith.

Last year, more than 50 items were recovered by FBI and local law enforcement and returned to the institutions from which they were stolen, including the Valley Forge Historical Society, which later became the Museum of the American Revolution.

This gun was not part of that trove. It took the quick eye of an Antiques Roadshow appraiser to discover the stolen weapon.

After the 2023 repatriation of stolen items, the FBI published a list of remaining stolen guns yet to be recovered. That list reached Joel Bohy, a military appraiser based in Rhode Island who often appears on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow. He recalled seeing a gun with a brass butt plate engraved with the identifier “PROV No. 89” at a recent antiques fair. The piece was so interesting that he took a picture of it with his phone.

Bohy reached out to the FBI with what he saw. Soon the unidentified, Maryland-based collector was contacted. Not realizing they had acquired a stolen gun, the collector quickly submitted the item to the FBI Art Crime Team.

The gun was then positively identified and given to its legal owner, the Chubb insurance company, which had paid out the original insurance claim for the 1968 theft. On Monday, Chubb donated the gun back to the Museum of the American Revolution, as the successor of the Valley Forge Historical Society.

Even for an international insurance company handling about four million claims a year, Chubb vice president Maria Thackston said recovering a relic gone missing a half-century ago is rare.

“We are thrilled to be able to return it to its rightful place, to the Museum of the American Revolution,” she said. “We really want the public to be able to enjoy it.”

The Museum of the American Revolution’s weapons room is one of its most popular galleries. Museum curators have not yet decided where or how to display the recovered musket.
Peter Crimmins
/
WHYY
The Museum of the American Revolution’s weapons room is one of its most popular galleries. Museum curators have not yet decided where or how to display the recovered musket.

Thackston mentioned the poignancy of returning a war relic to the Museum of the American Revolution just before the Fourth of July as the country celebrates the 248th anniversary of that conflict. But Independence Day visitors will not be able to see the gun. Museum conservators will be taking the gun apart and studying its pieces, and conservators will be considering where and how to include the piece in the core exhibition galleries.

Guns are displayed in various parts of the museum, with a large concentration in one particular gallery highlighting weaponry. It’s one of the museum’s most popular rooms.

“People sometimes spend twenty minutes looking at all the different varieties of weapons learning about the technology of the period and how technology affected tactics,” Stephenson said.

“There’s great artistry in the work. This is all hand work,” he said. “This is literally hammer in hand: steel, iron, brass, wood, carefully fitting these pieces together.”

Peter Crimmins | WHYY