Stolen gas mask returned to museum after nearly a century

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A piece of history stolen from the Wyoming State Museum more than 90 years ago has found its way home.

Officials say they were able to recover the piece — a World War I-era German gas mask — after an astute observer found it for sale online and recognized it as part of the museum's collection.

Jim Allison is the museum's collections supervisor. He said the gas mask originally was found near Belleau Wood, the site of a battle between American and German forces in June of 1918.

The mask will be on display near the entrance to the museum's galleries for 12 weeks. The museum is located at 2301 Central Ave. and is open from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The mask was brought to Wyoming by Robert Pennewill, a native of Salt Creek. He had served as a supply sergeant for the 148th field artillery in France during World War I.

"He collected a big collection of war souvenirs," Allison said. "We're talking hundreds of items: bayonets, flags, signs and gas masks."

Upon his return to Wyoming, Pennewill offered his war collection to the state for $1,500 — a sum the state couldn't afford.

But William Coe, a New York City philanthropist who owned a ranch in Park County, bought the collection in 1919 and gave it to the state.

In the early 1920s, parts of it were housed in an exhibit at the State Capitol. It was at that time, Allison said, that several of the pieces were stolen, including the gas mask. For nine decades, no one at the museum had any idea what had become of the mask.

That was until March 24, when the museum got an email from a man in Pipestone, Minnesota, named Dave — Allison declined to give the man's last name. He recognized the Pennewill collection tag attached to the mask.

"It was a two-sentence email that basically said, 'Saw this on eBay and it's from your well-known Pennewill collection. Thought you might want to have a look at it,'" Allison said.

"We don't know who he is. He gave his name, but there was nothing in there about how he knew about the Pennewill collection."

The museum contacted the auctioneer, which turned out to be Presidential Pawn, a pawn shop in Rapid City, South Dakota, that has seen its fair share of unusual antiquities.

Shop owner Chris Johnson said, "We're known pretty far and wide regionally for being dealers of unique and rare collectibles and historic items. It was no surprise when something like the gas mask came into our doors; we see a lot of old military memorabilia."

Johnson said the mask had been brought in a month earlier by a man who said he had bought it at an auction and no longer wanted it. After doing a routine screening to ensure it hadn't been recently stolen, Presidential Pawn put it up for sale.

"We've seen gas masks from World War I before, but this one was in really good condition," Johnson said. "It would've been something we would've sold for around $300 on our eBay store."

But Johnson said even the most robust screenings can miss a stolen item or two. So when the State Museum came calling, he said he felt the familiar sinking feeling — at least at first.

"It's pretty rare we buy something stolen," he said. "But when we were told it was stolen in the early '20s, then it became kind of a cool thing."

A history buff, Johnson said gas masks share a special connection with World War I: That was the first major war to see the widespread use of gas as a weapon, often to devastating effect.

"One of the reasons World War I broke out was because all of the parties really underestimated the new technology their opponents had in their hands," he said.

"You had basically the past and the present kind of converging all in one war. When you hold something like that (mask) in your hand, you can't help but put yourself back there. We're almost 100 years from the start of World War I itself."

Allison said the gas mask's return to the State Museum is a stroke of luck that is hard to overstate. He said it's almost unheard of for a museum to recover a piece that has been missing for so long.

"It's something that I have seen once in my career, my entire 24-year museum career," he said. "We're always on the lookout for things that have gone missing.

"Occasionally, we do go and troll through online auctions to try to find them. But the chances of that happening are pretty slim. So this is really good news for us."

And unlike Pennewill nearly a century ago, Johnson said he was happy to return the gas mask free of charge.

"You can't put a price tag on getting something back to its rightful owner," he said. "It was absolutely our pleasure to return it."

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