Controversy swirls around Pickett's sword

Hot market for artifacts of Civil War fuels abuse of buyers and sellers

Gettysburg : 138th Anniversary

July 08, 2001|By Jeff Gammage | Jeff Gammage,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Among collectors it's become known as the watermelon sword.

And not for its color or texture.

The century-old sword had no nickname when it first appeared on "Antiques Roadshow," the traveling television yard sale that invites people to have their curios and keepsakes examined by expert appraisers. The show's riches-from-the-basement formula has made it the top-rated public TV series of all time.

That night in 1997, the camera scanned the shimmering length of the sword as it rested on a display table.

At its hilt sits George Juno, dressed in a conservative navy suit and tasteful floral tie. He and his business partner, Russ Pritchard III, are among the show's most popular appraisers. Their Bryn Mawr, Pa., firm, American Ordnance Preservation Association, known as AOPA, earns millions of dollars trading in the lucrative Civil War relics market. Across from Juno, near the tip of the sword, sits a man in a blue sport shirt, who casually explains how he found the piece in an attic.

"For me, pretty much it became a plaything, and then over the last 10 or 15 years it's been stored away," he says.

"Well, Steve," Juno answers. "It's quite an interesting sword."

The weapon was made in New Orleans by the Thomas Griswold company, Juno explains. He shows how both sides of the blade are engraved C.S., for Confederate States. He points out the image of Fort Sumter on the hand guard and the distinctive two-piece design of the pommel cap.

`A very flashy sword'

"In the field, this was a very flashy sword," Juno says. "It would have been gold-plated all over the hilt and down the scabbard. The blade would have been frosty-white etched. This is definitely the highest-quality pattern that they produced."

He asks Steve: "Do you have any ideas as to the value of this sword?"

Juno's question signals the arrival of the ultimate "Antiques Roadshow" moment - the climax of the two-person mini-drama, alerting viewers that they're about to discover whether a particular item is rare or a reproduction. Steve, in the best "Roadshow" tradition, tells Juno he has no idea what the sword is worth - he was going to sell it at a garage sale.

"This sword," Juno announces, "is worth about $35,000 on today's market."

Steve's mouth drops open.

"Most Confederate swords are worth about $2,000 to $10,000," Juno continues. "This happens to be one of the great rarities in Confederate swords."

Steve seems to be in shock. "Did you say" - his voice catches - "$35,000?""$35,000," Juno says, nodding.

"Whoa!" Steve exclaims. "I had no idea."

Seconds later Steve tags the sword with its nickname: "As a kid," he tells Juno, "I cut a watermelon with this thing."

It was a marvelous TV moment, another treasure-from-nowhere success for "Antiques Roadshow," for Juno and his firm, for collectors everywhere.

One problem

There was just one problem.

According to federal authorities in Philadelphia, the whole thing was staged. The man who sat beside Juno, identified on camera only as "Steve," was no stranger. The man - his name is Stephen C. Sadtler - was a good friend of Juno's business partner, Pritchard. And he didn't just wander in off the street with a rare Confederate sword.

Pritchard paid for Sadtler to fly to Seattle, where the show was being taped, authorities say. The two appraisers met with him to discuss the story he would tell. Then they handed him the sword he would claim was his own.

In March a federal grand jury indicted Juno, 40, and Pritchard, 37, on charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and related offenses. Pritchard was also charged with witness tampering - he allegedly told Sadtler to lie if the FBI came calling, and simultaneously forgave him a $10,000 loan. In May. Juno took a big step toward reducing his potential jail time - he pleaded guilty to reduced charges and agreed to testify against his associate.

"It's a tough day," Juno said to a reporter.

Two days later, the government unloaded a raft of new charges against Pritchard - and against his father, who once ran Philadelphia's Civil War Library and Museum - including theft and transporting stolen goods.

The younger Pritchard, if convicted at trial, could be sentenced to a maximum of 130 years. Juno's plea reduced his possible prison time from 45 years to 20.

Neither man was willing to be interviewed for this story.

"This investigation continues, and we'll see where it takes us," says Robert Goldman, assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia.

The indictment outlines what the government says was AOPA's typical practice: First, a promise to the owners that their beloved family heirloom would go to a museum. Then a lowball appraisal and an offer to buy at that price. Last, a quick resale to a private collector at the actual value, often tens of thousands of dollars higher.

Faking appraisals on "Antiques Roadshow" was key to the scheme, authorities say, a means for the two men to enhance their reputations and attract new customers.

And, what's more, it worked.

Fascination continues

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