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thedrifter
03-23-06, 06:54 AM
Looking down the barrel of a 24-year-old mystery

BY JOHN P. MARTIN AND JOE MALINCONICO
Star-Ledger Staff
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Few things are as intriguing as the life of an antique gun.

Consider Griswold and Gunnison Confederate .36-caliber pistol No.1550. The long-barreled revolver was crafted nearly a century-and-a-half ago by two gunsmiths hired to produce the weapons as fast as they could for the Confederate army.

The pair made about 3,700 of the brass-framed six-shooters before Union forces destroyed their Georgia plant. No.1550, its digits carved prominently into the gun, was one of the few survivors. Decades later, it landed in the collection of a renowned New Jersey arms enthusiast, Valmore Forgett Jr., before disappearing in a sophisticated burglary.

That was in 1982.

Forgett died four years ago, but his gun lives on. Yesterday, FBI agents were arranging to return the pistol to Forgett's family after a New Jersey man found it among his deceased father's belongings.

The Griswold and Gunnison was still in excellent shape.

"Once in a great while, if you go to the big-time gun shows, you might find one or two around," said Terry Warneck, a collector and employee at the New Jersey Firearms Guild, a Rahway store. "To find one in pristine condition is ... well, you're talking about the Holy Grail."

The missing gun case represents more than just a quirky ending to a long-running mystery. Firearms collectors say they are seeing a wave of newly discovered antique pieces, citing the passing of generations whose lives were shaped by war and whose heirs fuel a global online marketplace.

"Many of those trunks and footlockers are opening up, and a lot of material that might have not been seen for years is coming on the market," said Doug Wicklund, a senior curator at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va.

That's what happened with Forgett's weapon.

Experts say the revolver is probably among fewer than 300 Griswold and Gunnisons still in circulation. In top condition, it could be worth at least $25,000 and perhaps twice as much.

FBI spokesman Steven Siegel declined to identify the man who found the gun but said agents believed he didn't realize it was stolen and isn't likely to face charges. The investigation is continuing, he said.

Forgett, who lived for decades in North Jersey, developed a national reputation as an antique weapons collector and gun enthusiast.

In 1956, he founded a replica manufacturer, Navy Arms Co., that became a favorite of war re-enactors and movie producers. His pieces looked so authentic that they were used in films such as "Dances with Wolves" and "Last of the Mohicans."

Forgett hunted big game in Africa, competed in national shooting events and drew throngs at collectors' exhibits.

"People would line up to see what he brought," Wicklund recalled.

All of which made the August 1982 heist more shocking. The pistol was one of more than 40 weapons stolen that night from Forgett's home in Woodcliff Lake. Burglars cut his phone lines, de-activated his security system and also made off with artifacts, historic military medals and swords encrusted with gems.

Police initially estimated the loss at $750,000. Forgett later lowered the dollar amount, but he considered the collection priceless in other ways.

"He took 35 years to put that collection together, and it was gone in an hour," said Woodcliff Lake detective Sgt. Matt Miller, who spoke with Forgett about the case several times over a decade. "He was still upset about it in 1999, the last time I talked to him. It wasn't about the money. This was his passion."

According to Miller, Forgett hired private investigators to search for the guns, and police routinely updated the report in national criminal databases.

Forgett died from a blood disorder in November 2002 without ever recovering any of his stolen items. His son and namesake, Valmore Forget III, now runs Navy Arms in West Virginia. He couldn't be reached yesterday, and Forgett's widow, Eleanor, declined to comment.

The case broke earlier this month when collectors saw Forgett's weapon for sale on an e-mail listing. Like most Griswold and Gunnisons, Forgett's model was unmistakable. It had all its original parts, with "1550" engraved on each.

"It's a small fraternity of people involved in collecting these types of antique weapons; numerous people contacted the FBI," said Siegel, the spokesman for the Newark division.

Posing as possible buyers, two agents arranged a meeting with the seller. Once they introduced themselves as law enforcement, the seller said he had found the gun while liquidating his father's estate and offered to return it to its rightful owner.

Agents found no other stolen items, Siegel said. And no one has been charged. He said the bureau is arranging to return the gun to Forgett's heirs.

Miller, the Woodcliff Lake detective, was stunned at the news.

"It's just a shame he wasn't alive to know one of those guns was found," he said. "How could all those years go by without one of those guns surfacing?"

John P. Martin may be reached at (973) 622-3405 or at jmartin@starledger.com. Joe Malinconico can be reached at (973) 392-4230 or at jmalinconico@starledger.com.