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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

One hundred thirty-six years after the shooting stopped, the Civil War continues to fascinate. Battlefield tourism is flourishing. Thousands of people spend their weekends re-creating skirmishes. Disputes over the use of Confederate symbols on flags and license plates pepper the news.

Unlike the Revolutionary War, so formal and distant, or the Vietnam War, too near and painful, the Civil War was a purely American conflict fought on American soil. It is accessible in a way that other wars are not. The combatants committed their thoughts to paper, in English. You don't need to speak German or Japanese to understand the strategy of top generals or the fears of frontline soldiers. And all you need to see the great battlegrounds is a road map and a tank of gas.

"It's immediate, it's there, it's available," says Temple University historian Andrew Waskie.

Thousands of families have ancestors who fought in the conflict, and many still own great-grandfather's sword. Those who don't can buy a weapon that belonged to somebody else's grandfather. Muskets, pistols and swords are for sale at ever-increasing prices. Owning them is part of the fun. But it can also be a risk.

"Wherever you have a hot market, and you have unscrupulous people," Waskie says, "you're going to have scams."

If there is a single rule that governs the buying and selling of the priciest Civil War artifacts, it is this: There are no rules. Demand has driven prices through the roof, everyone is trying to buy low and sell high, and near-perfect reproductions have poisoned parts of the market.

Yet passionate collectors aren't dissuaded by the occasional bad buy. "Reading about history is nothing like actually holding tangible pieces of the past," says collector Paul Loane, director of alumni relations at Rutgers University-Camden.

The truth is, frauds have had scant impact on the overall market. Investing in authentic, top-grade Civil War memorabilia is surer than stocks.

"It's like a person who will collect wine or fine art," says Bill Synnamon, who runs the Union Drummer Boy antiques store in Gettysburg. "There's people that will spend a couple hundred thousand for a particular sword."

On the hot summer afternoon of July 3, 1863, a young Confederate general named George E. Pickett led a desperate attack against the Union forces massed at Gettysburg. History would record the slaughter of his troops as Pickett's Charge.

130 years later

More than 130 years later, in September 1995, Russ Pritchard III came calling on the general's great-great-grandson, a North Carolina carpenter named George E. Pickett V.

Pritchard didn't pull Pickett's name out of a phone book. He got a tip from the mayor of Harrisburg, Stephen Reed, who was determined to build a world-class Civil War museum in Pennsylvania's capital. The city already had possessions of Lincoln, Grant and Lee. In fact, the mayor was single-handedly driving a booming seller's market, ultimately purchasing $17 million worth of artifacts and papers for the National Civil War Museum.

Reed retained Pritchard and his firm to acquire top-grade goods, and AOPA was good at it. In 18 months the company sold $5.1 million worth of relics to the city. By the time Pritchard was done with Pickett, it would be $6 million.

Pritchard arrived in the coastal enclave of Wilmington, N.C., intending to see Wilna Pickett, the widow of George E. Pickett IV. At the time, she was living in a nursing home. That didn't stop Pritchard. He walked into the Mariner Health Center, checked a roster of patients to ascertain her room number, and then went to her room. It was empty.

Pritchard walked back to the front desk, where a staff member told him Mrs. Pickett was not capable of hosting visitors. The worker agreed to phone Mrs. Pickett's daughter, who called her brother, George E. V.

Pickett was wary of this stranger from the north. He wouldn't agree to meet. He told Pritchard they could get together for lunch if Pritchard came back another time.

Pritchard came back. During the next two months, he would labor to become Pickett's new best friend, making three more trips to Wilmington, accompanying Pickett to a yoga class and a surfing contest, and even spending a day helping him carry drywall at a construction site.

"Pritchard knew how to schmooze him," says Pickett's attorney, Philadelphia lawyer Gavin Lentz.

People who know the antiques dealer invariably describe him as baby-faced, nearly cherubic. And, in fact, he carried a bit of a Civil War pedigree himself. His father, Russ Pritchard Jr., was for years the director of the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia. As a boy, Pritchard swept the museum floors. He worked his way through college as a paramedic, went into the insurance business, then started a company that provided occupational therapists to nursing homes. By 1994 he was working full time in militaria, trying to build a company and a reputation.

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