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.
The mask will be on display near the entrance to the museum's galleries for 12 weeks. The museum is located at
The mask was brought to
"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
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
"It was a two-sentence email that basically said, 'Saw this on
"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
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
But Johnson said even the most robust screenings can miss a stolen item or two. So when the
"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
"One of the reasons
"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
Allison said the gas mask's return to the
"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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