Rare Boba Fett figure snares alleged 'Star Wars' thief; at least 100 collectors' items still missing

  • Carl Cunningham is charged with stealing more than $200,000 worth of "Star Wars" merchandise from the world's largest collector, Steve Sansweet, of California.
  • Cunningham, of Georgia, is also charged with stealing a $40,000 prototype Boba Fett figure from Texas collector Philip Wise.
  • Zach Tann, who had been buying items from Cunningham for months, realized after speaking with Wise that he had bought Wise's Boba Fett and about 70 percent of the items stolen from Sansweet.
Steve Sansweet warns guests to avoid the Empires Stormtroopers Racho Obi-Wan.
Source: Racho Obi-Wan
Steve Sansweet warns guests to avoid the Empires Stormtroopers Racho Obi-Wan.

It all comes back to Boba Fett.

A collector in Georgia is facing charges in two states after his admission to stealing a rare "Star Wars" figurine led to the discovery that he may have swiped more than $200,000 worth of memorabilia from the world's biggest collector of "Star Wars" merchandise.

Carl Cunningham was indicted by a grand jury in Denton County, Texas, in February after admitting to taking a prototype rocket-firing Boba Fett action figure from a fellow collector and friend, the Roanoke Police Department in Texas confirmed.

The prototype, created in the likeness of Star Wars bounty hunter Boba Fett, is one of only a few that were created and is estimated to be worth about $40,000.

Philip Wise, a prolific collector from Texas, told CNBC that he discovered in early February that the figure had disappeared from its case in his personal museum.

After reporting the theft to police, Wise posted about the missing Fett toy on his website RebelScum.com, a well-known Star Wars collectors news site. The post quickly caught the attention of Zach Tann, a collector and dealer based in California, who had recently purchased a rare Boba Fett prototype.

Because there were only a small number of these prototypes created, Tann reached out to Wise to verify if the figure he had purchased had been the one that was taken.

"My stomach dropped," Tann told CNBC about the moment he realized that the figure he bought had been stolen.

Tann said the action figure was one of many items he had bought from Cunningham since May 2016. He also said that at first he was hesitant to tell Wise who had sold him the item in case Cunningham had purchased it from another dealer before reselling it.

However, when Wise named Cunningham as a possible suspect, Tann confirmed he was the seller and shared the list of other items he had purchased. Wise recognized many of the items and determined that there was only one place that they could have come from: his friend Steve Sansweet's museum in California.

Sansweet is well-known in the collecting world. He owns an estimated 500,000 pieces of "Star Wars" merchandise, although only 93,260 were cataloged in 2015 to earn him the Guinness World Record for the largest collection of "Star Wars" memorabilia. He is also the owner of Rancho Obi-Wan, a public museum and nonprofit organization.

Part of the collection in front bay of Racho Obi-Wan.
Source: Rancho Obi-Wan
Part of the collection in front bay of Racho Obi-Wan.

In March, Cunningham was arrested in Sonoma County, California, in connection with the theft of more than 100 items from the Rancho Obi-Wan museum between 2015 and 2016. He posted bail and is due back in court at the end of June, the Superior Court of California in Sonoma County confirmed.

Sansweet told CNBC that he has recovered nine items valued at about $9,000 and that buyers who purchased about 100 other pieces of memorabilia had been contacted by the dealers who sold them the items. He posted on his museum's website on Monday asking fellow collectors for help finding the remaining items.

Some 70 percent of the stolen items from Sansweet's museum had been purchased by Tann. However, he had already resold many of the pieces to other collectors across the world before realizing that they were stolen.

Tann said he was "horrified" when he found out that he was selling stolen items. He said he has notified 95 percent of the buyers.

In addition to the Boba Fett figure, Wise has accused Cunningham of stealing $33,000 worth of replica props from his collection. Wise has yet to locate these items.

Both Wise and Sansweet were longtime friends of Cunningham. Wise said this was likely how Cunningham was able to get access to both collections.

At least four other people and organizations in addition to Sansweet and Wise may have been targeted by Cunningham, Wise told CNBC. He alleged that as much as $15,000 in cash was stolen from one of these individuals by Cunningham between 2010 and 2013. CNBC was unable to confirm this, however.

Wise said he believes Cunningham "has been stealing for a long time."

The Star Wars collector community is known for being tight-knit. Collectors from around the world come together at conventions and events to share their love of the iconic film franchise and often assist each other in adding to or completing their collections.

For Wise, this incident hasn't tarnished his view of the collecting community.

"I chose to believe that it was a one-time thing," he said. "I still trust all my friends. It's just better for me to lock the doors now. This was an extraordinarily rare occurrence."

Neither Cunningham nor his attorney immediately responded to CNBC's request for comment.