Owner of Rancho Obi-Wan, the Smithsonian of ‘Star Wars,’ speaks out on ‘devastating’ memorabilia theft – Los Angeles Times

It’s taken nearly 40 years for Steve Sansweet to amass what the Guinness World Records named the largest collection of “Star Wars” memorabilia. His Petaluma-based museum, Rancho Obi-Wan, is the Smithsonian of “Star Wars.”

But a series of thefts, revealed Monday on the museum’s website and social media channels, has left Sansweet shaken by the loss of more than 100 rare items worth over $200,000.

“This has become the spiritual home, in a way, for ‘Star Wars’ collectors,” Sansweet, president and CEO of the nonprofit museum, told The Times. “For somebody to come in and steal items from that reference collection, to steal major and important items that I treasure from an emotional standpoint, not from a financial standpoint … has been really devastating.”

The accused is Carl Edward Cunningham, 45, of Marietta, Ga., a fellow “Star Wars” collector and friend of Sansweet’s who visited Rancho Obi-Wan several times through early 2016. Cunningham turned himself in to Sonoma County Sheriff’s authorities on March 24 and pleaded not guilty to one count of felony grand theft.

Rancho Obi-Wan is the home, according to Sansweet, of more than 400,000 “Star Wars” collectibles dating back to the release of 1977’s “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.” Located on a converted Petaluma chicken ranch, the fan mecca is dedicated to preserving and exhibiting props, costumes, toys and memorabilia from the most beloved movie franchise in history.

The thefts went undetected until another collector, Philip Wise, discovered the disappearance of a rare rocket-firing Boba Fett action figure from his own massive “Star Wars” collection housed in Roanoke, Texas. He posted about the missing item online and was contacted by Southern California-based toy dealer Zach Tann, who had bought the Boba Fett from Cunningham.

A Sonoma County Sheriff’s investigation into the Rancho Obi-Wan thefts led to a case against Cunningham, who has been released on $25,000 bail and is expected back in court for a preliminary hearing on June 27, according to Sonoma County Sheriff’s Dept. Sgt. Spencer Crum.

“At least three times last year he was left in the store alone to help organize things, help dust, clean up. [Sansweet] didn’t realize that Cunningham had taken a bunch of stuff out of the storage room,” said Crum, who noted that Cunningham allegedly acknowledged the theft in later emails to Sansweet.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department is aiding efforts to recover the bulk of the stolen property. Many of the stolen items, including rare and valuable “Star Wars” action figures worth thousands of dollars individually, have already been resold and are highly difficult to track down.

According to Sansweet, only 5% of the stolen items have so far been returned to the museum.

“We’re starting to hear from people saying, ‘I want to make sure this gets back to Rancho Obi-Wan,’” a weary Sansweet said after receiving a huge outpouring of support from the “Star Wars” community.

“My hope would be that everyone will be compensated for what they bought and will be willing to return the items to Rancho, but that all depends on an insurance settlement. And that’s never easy with insurance companies.”

For Sansweet, a popular fixture in the “Star Wars” community who headed Lucasfilm fan relations for 15 years and still works as a liaison to the company’s global fan base, the betrayal and loss was deeply personal.

Most of the Rancho Obi-Wan collection was purchased by Sansweet, who ramped up his private collection after he quit a career in journalism to follow his lifelong passion for “Star Wars.”

“‘Star Wars’ collectibles have been hot and are getting hotter as the new movies come out and people really love them,” said Sansweet of the lucrative “Star Wars” merchandising industry estimated to have generated between $20 billion to $32 billion over four decades. “But the vintage collectibles from the era from 1977 through 1986 have gone way beyond my wildest nightmare, because it’s impossible to buy in the market these days for somebody like me.”

“Luckily, I got a lot of my stuff early on,” he added. “But that’s the stuff that was stolen.”

Among the rare items taken from the Rancho Obi-Wan shelves: A Ben Kenobi “12 Back” series packaged Palitoy action figure worth more than $1,100, part of the very first line of action figures produced for the original “Star Wars,“ and a Luke Skywalker action figure from “Empire Strikes Back” that goes for $200 to $800 online.

Two of Sansweet’s most prized — and still missing — pieces hold special places in his heart. One is a cardboard Death Star made by the toy company Palitoy in 1978 in England. It was sold in just a handful of countries overseas and is considered a holy-grail item by hardcore “Star Wars” collectors.

The other, a rare Canadian packaged wind-up R2-D2 figure, wasn’t listed on any of the purchase manifests investigators used to track what had been stolen and then resold.

In spite of the “devastating” loss, Sansweet is heartened by the support “Star Wars” fans have offered after hearing his plea to help Rancho Obi-Wan recover its artifacts by sending in tips on the whereabouts of additional stolen items.

“The ‘Star Wars’ fan community is such an amazing group of people,” he said. “When we first heard about it we thought, ‘What are we doing this for? Why are we working our butts off putting this museum out there for people to see?’ And, you know, a nonprofit struggles … we certainly don’t do it for the money.

“But ‘Star Wars’ fans — there are none better,” he said. “We’re not letting this one really rotten apple spoil the bunch.”

jen.yamato@latimes.com

@jenyamato

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