More than 50 historical guns returned to US museums they were stolen from decades ago

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A decades-long case involving stolen historical rifles has come to a close at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution. On 13 March, a ceremony at the institution marked the recovery of more than 50 guns stolen from 16 separate museums over the course of the late 1960s and 70s, including the Daniel Boone Homestead in Pennsylvania, the Museum of Connecticut History, and the Beauvoir Museum in Biloxi Mississippi, USA Today reported.

Beginning in 1968, historic pistols were reportedly pilfered from collections across the US. Museums often didn’t notice for weeks, months or years that their armories had been compromised. The cases all went cold until 2009, when Pennsylvania detectives Andrew Rathfon and Brendan Dougherty received a false tip involving a gun removed from the Valley Forge Historical Society.

The pair then began a 14-year national investigation, which, thanks to what Rathfon described to USA Today as a few “lucky breaks and confidential sources”, led them to the residence of Michael Kintner Corbett in Newark, Delaware. On 24 May 2017, a team led by FBI art crimes agent Jake Archer searched Corbett’s home, uncovering an unparalleled trove of missing historic firearms, the manufacture of which spanned the entire history of the US, although none actually matched the description of the original missing objects that spurred the search.

Corbett, a 73-year-old history buff, struck a plea deal for possession of stolen property in 2022, leading to a single day in prison, 14 months of house arrest and a fine of $65,000. According to his attorney, Barry Gross, Corbett never intended to sell the guns, only “to have them”. While a “great number” of Corbett’s weapons had been acquired through legitimate means from estate sales and flea markets, Corbett’s ability to lead officers to the formerly undisclosed locations of the missing Valley Forge guns told a different story. Authorities could not prove Corbett’s involvement in the initial burglaries, although assistant US attorney general KT Newton quipped that, “I will leave you to your own conclusions” when questioned on the subject.

“We do know that a number of firearms and other items stolen from the same museum at the same time were found in his home,” Newton told USA Today. “We also do know that in the distant past, Michael Corbett himself had been arrested and charged with a burglary … at the General Mansfield house, the headquarters for the Middlesex County Historical Society in Connecticut.”

The 13 March ceremony at the Museum of the American Revolution was attended by cultural heritage workers from all over the US, from the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts to the Delaware County Historical Society. “It gives you hope,” ZeeAnn Mason, chief operating officer for the Museum of the American Revolution, said. “When 50 years later we are able to recover these objects, it means there’s always hope.”

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