Of all the weapons in his personal collection, Kristopher Gasior always cherished the wz.38M Maroszek rifle the most. The gun — one of only a handful in the world — came from Poland, his home country, and it was produced in the war that claimed his grandfather’s life.
But Gasior was not the only one with an interest in the military artifact. The Polish government views the Maroszek as a “great piece of cultural and scientific significance.” When Gasior, who had decided to sell most of his large collection, listed the weapon for sale on his Web site, Poland had U.S. federal agents seize it, arguing that it had been stolen from the government during World War II.
Gasior, 54, of Fredericksburg, Va., now finds himself at the center of an international legal battle pitting him against the European nation where he grew up.
At stake, those in the case say, is a part of Polish history and the right of collectors and veterans to keep relics that they brought back from faraway places. Gasior and his attorney argue that the rifle is what is known as a “war trophy,” carried into the United States legally by a soldier who got it during World War II. Polish officials say that can’t be so, because war trophies are taken from enemies and this gun was made for Polish soldiers fighting on the same side as U.S. troops.
Homeland Security officials routinely seize cultural artifacts, often statues or artwork, and return them to foreign countries with some fanfare. But when four federal agents came to Gasior’s door in March — only a week after he had posted the weapon for sale on his website — Gasior said he assumed they were conducting a regular inspection of his stock.
Almost immediately, he said, they demanded the Maroszek rifle, and one agent circled behind him as he protested.
“I told them they had absolutely no right to take this rifle,” Gasior said. “They made me understand if I did not give them the rifle, I would go with the rifle.”
Poland is “very protective” of pieces the government considers “related to the defense of the Polish state in any way, shape or form,” said David Stefancic, a history professor at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. And the Maroszek, he said, is a “very unique piece.”
“To have one in your collection, there’s a lot of bragging rights,” he said.
Gasior’s case drew particular attention earlier this year in gun collector circles, when the president of the NRA wrote a commentary for the Washington Times about the case. The gun-rights group even paid to hire an attorney for Gasior, who said he was an on-and-off member.
Gasior is an unlikely face for a legal showdown with Poland. In a thick Polish accent, the married father of two speaks proudly of his parents’ service in the Polish Home Army and of learning to read from his family’s Polish military history books. His grandfather, he said, died defending Poland in World War II.
Gasior immigrated to the United States in 1985 and studied international relations and political science at UCLA before moving to Virginia to work for General Electric and Ericsson, a communications company. He said he transitioned to collecting and selling antique weapons full time as his finances allowed.
Although his business inventory of weapons at one time numbered more than 2,000, Gasior said he decided recently to retire and sell any guns that required him to keep a federal firearms license. These days, he spends most of his time taking his sons fishing or riding his Honda Shadow motorcycle on the country roads near his home.
“It wasn’t really a case where I was looking for troubles,” Gasior said. “Troubles came to me, quite unexpectedly.”
A Homeland Security agent initially got a seizure warrant to keep the rifle, largely based on information provided by Poland. But this month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia filed a complaint asking to be removed from the case, saying there was “great doubt” as to who was entitled to the weapon.
Gasior said he bought the rifle legally in 1993 from another collector, paying $9,500 for what he considered “probably the best piece of my personal collection.”
“It’s not something you could replace easily,” he said.
By Gasior’s account, the weapon was one of only 150 when it was made for Polish troops in 1938 and 1939 and today is one of about nine remaining.
Polish officials say the gun might be more rare than that. Patrycja Grochecka, the second secretary at the consular division of the Polish Embassy, said Polish officials have been able to document only five preserved to this day, including one at a museum in Warsaw. She said that the weapons were made specifically for Polish troops fighting during World War II and that Gasior’s rifle was likely stolen by invading soldiers.
“It’s just Polish property, and it has sentimental value for our country,” she said, adding that officials want to display it in a museum somewhere in Poland.
The case is not one that will be easily decided. Gasior, himself a sort-of Polish firearms expert, said his research shows that the weapon was most likely issued to Polish soldiers during World War II, then taken by Germans. He said a U.S. soldier probably took it from them — which he argues would make the rifle a “war trophy,” not unlike any foreign rifle hanging in the living rooms of veterans across the country.
“They didn’t even try to buy it from me. They tried to steal it from me,” Gasior said. “How about all the U.S. soldiers who lost lives and got injured . . . capturing this rifle?”
Hard to track rifle’s path
Grochecka said it would be near impossible to track the precise path of the rifle but that its path is irrelevant. Because the gun was made exclusively for Polish military members, it belonged to Poland. That it might have passed from German to American hands does not change that, she said.
“Germans never got it legally,” she said. “We don’t really believe that it was a war trophy.”
Richard Gardiner, Gasior’s attorney, said he and Poland’s attorneys still must file claims for the rifle, although he anticipates doing so soon.
He said the case might come down to experts sparring over the details of the rifle’s history, which are hard to reconstruct.
“That’s part of the problem,” he said. “We don’t know how it got here, and we’ll probably never know that.”
Gasior, who had been asking $65,000 for the rifle, said he once turned down a German collector’s offer to buy the weapon, and he always envisioned that it might one day end up in Poland. But because of how the gun was taken, he said, he now is reluctant to even sell the gun to the Polish government unless officials there apologize for having it seized.
“I want my rifle back,” he said, “and I want to be left alone.”