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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

Back home after that first trip, Pritchard immediately wrote to Pickett and apologized for the awkwardness. A week later, he forwarded a letter of reference in which Mayor Reed described Pritchard as the city's "official representative" in negotiating for the general's belongings.

"It is our view that General Pickett has not been accorded his due," the mayor wrote. "We plan to change this."

Pritchard flew to North Carolina again. This time he met Pickett, talked with him for more than three hours, and picked up the tab for lunch. But he still didn't see any heirlooms.

"I would describe it almost as a cat-and-mouse game," Pritchard later said. "Mr. Pickett wasn't really willing to give up a whole lot of information."

Pritchard complained to the mayor that Pickett was hard to deal with - but he had a plan. "I have made extensive notes of the family's behavioral patterns," Pritchard wrote, "and am working with a sales/negotiating psychologist to help me with a strategy to achieve the acquisition."

To Pickett he sent a cheerful note saying how good it was to finally see him. "Your two children that I met are precious," he wrote.

In early October Pritchard made his third trip to North Carolina. A couple of days later, Pickett opened an old trunk and showed him the general's effects - an extraordinary collection of letters, military commissions and uniform parts, topped by a cloth-and-leather crown jewel: The general's personal kepi hat.

`A new word to me'

Best of all, Pickett was willing to sell.

One authority would later note that buyer and seller did not share "an even playing field of knowledge." To put it another way, Pickett had no clue - no clue what his items were worth, no understanding how his bloodline enhanced their value by a factor of 10.

That lack of knowledge would bring him untold trouble and heartache.

"Provenance," he later said in court, "was a new word to me."

To Civil War dealers, provenance - a proven chain of ownership to an original illustrious owner - is everything. And the provenance in this case was exquisite.

"On a scale of 1 to 10," autograph expert John Reznikoff testified, "the provenance was an 11."

No one except a handful of the general's descendants had even seen the items. Imagine if an unknown Hemingway novel were discovered at the bottom of a file cabinet owned by his granddaughter, Mariel: The impact was the same.

Pickett's Charge ranks among the most famous attacks in military annals, the high-water mark of the Southern rebellion. The Copse of Trees where the fighting peaked is among the most visited sites at Gettysburg, a psychic fault line in American history, the spot where the Confederacy and destiny collided.

That day in October, Pritchard went through the trunk's contents, appraising the items one by one. He bought the general's kepi, his gold sash, a hand-drawn map of Gettysburg, a lock of hair, and more. He told Pickett he would pay their appraised value, which he put at $57,000, and would throw in a home computer.

"I said, `Is this all that these are worth? Is this the best price?'" Pickett said in court. "And he said, `I can fudge it a little bit, but my reputation is at stake; I'm working for the City of Harrisburg, directly for the mayor.'"

Pritchard offered another $5,000, pulling stacks of hundred-dollar bills from his briefcase and laying them on a table.

"That's the best I can do," he said.

"OK," Pickett answered. After all, it was going to the museum. Seeing his antiques preserved was one of Pickett's main reasons for selling. Another was to pay for his children's education. The way he looked at it, Pritchard was helping him accomplish both goals.

He never questioned his new friend's honesty. Pritchard even told him what he was being paid for handling the negotiations - $1,000 a day plus expenses.

"In my mind," Pickett said in a deposition, "$1,000 a day would keep this guy from even considering being dishonest."

On Oct. 13, Pritchard wrote and thanked Pickett for his friendship. "There is a unique bond between us," Pritchard said. "Thank you for helping me make a dream come true."

Later that month, Pritchard made his fourth trip to North Carolina, purchasing more letters and documents for $16,000. He also agreed to fund a monthlong family vacation in Costa Rica, worth $10,800.

All together, Pritchard paid $88,800 for the general's belongings. A few weeks later, he resold them to the City of Harrisburg for 10 times that amount, $880,000.

Pickett would not find out about it for nearly three years.

By then, Pritchard's frequent appearances on "Antiques Roadshow" had established him as an authority in his field. His company stood among the country's best-known dealers in militaria, its ads appearing in magazines and even on the back cover of the "Civil War Collectors Price Guide." The ads promised, "Highest prices paid."

A regular guy

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