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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

Coates told him: Before you sell another thing, get a good appraisal. The Friends president phoned Sam and Wes Small, who run a Gettysburg store called the Horse Soldier, saying he had someone in the office who needed an appraisal.

At the shop, everyone filed into a back room, and Pickett laid his precious family photographs on a table.

Sam Small looked them over, then picked up one and examined it closely.

"These are laser copies," he said.

"What do you mean they're laser copies?" Pickett said.

"Look at them," Small said. Each photo had a mark - visible under a magnifying glass - where the printer had skipped a line.

Now Pickett got angry. Copies? They weren't supposed to be copies. He had sent his photos to Pritchard for restoration. Pritchard was going to keep copies and return the originals. Pickett no longer thought someone had made a mistake. He thought he needed a lawyer.

A month after his visit to Gettysburg, Ed Pickett filed a suit alleging fraud. Among those who watched the trial were several note-taking FBI agents, whose work led to the federal indictment.

"Antiques Roadshow" fired Juno and Pritchard last year. The show's producers were widely criticized as being slow to dismiss the two appraisers after questions arose, and slow to stop using the watermelon sword segment on a "Roadshow" fundraising tape. Viewers who donated $75 for the tape were later offered refunds. Since then the program has largely gone on as before.

Its appraisers work for free, in exchange garnering national publicity that can bring in new business. It brought AOPA new customers, one of whom owned what would thereafter be known as "the Wilson sword."

Union Maj. Samuel Wilson fought under Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman during the march across Georgia and was badly wounded in 1864. That year, the men of his company presented him with an engraved sword, a silver-and-gold piece of art, its handle a 6-inch figurine of a solemn Lady Liberty.

The major's descendants happened to be big fans of "Antiques Roadshow," and they were particularly impressed by Pritchard and Juno. In 1997 they contacted AOPA about appraising the general's sword.

Pritchard estimated the sword's value at $7,950 and offered to buy it at that price, federal authorities say. He promised it would go to the Harrisburg museum, where, he said, Major Wilson would be honored with his own permanent exhibit.

Museum didn't get it

The family accepted. But the sword never made it to the museum. Juno admitted what happened: First, Juno gave the sword to his father as collateral for a loan - the dealer was trying to build a house in Connecticut. Then he helped his father sell the sword to a private collector for $20,000, about 2 1/2 times the purchase price.

But the Wilson family kept asking about the museum exhibit. Finally Juno and Pritchard admitted the truth - or part of it. They said they'd sold the sword, which was true, for $10,000, which was not. They sent the Wilson heirs a phony bill of sale as "proof" of the $10,000 price.

The new federal charges outline similar swindles:

In 1997 Pritchard paid a descendant of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade $184,000 for the general's ivory-gripped presentation pistol. Then he and Juno sold it to an Illinois collector for $385,000. (They sent the mayor of Harrisburg a letter saying the general's kin had decided not to sell the gun after all.)

The same year, authorities say, Pritchard stole a rare Union uniform right out of the Harrisburg museum inventory, replacing it with a worthless replica. He and Juno sold the uniform for $20,000.

Both Pritchards, father and son, were indicted for the 1996 theft of a Confederate officer's uniform. Asked by a Memphis museum for an appraisal, the two said the garment was, unfortunately, a costume. They said they would donate it to Goodwill. Two years later, the younger Pritchard sold it to a Georgia dealer for $45,000.

In 1999, a civil jury awarded $800,000 in damages to Pickett, among the victims named. Pickett collected much of his award from the Bryn Mawr, Pa., firm and Pritchard in the form of other Civil War artifacts.

"It was a con," Pickett says, "a well-orchestrated, sales-negotiation-psychology type of con."

Several efforts to contact Mayor Reed for this story were unsuccessful.

Looking back, Pickett says, he should have checked on Pritchard, but at the time he thought he was checking. The appraiser had a glowing recommendation from the mayor, and was representing a multimillion-dollar museum.

"I thought he was doing a really big favor for me and my family," Pickett says. "He sits on the beach with my kids, and in the back of his mind he's figuring out how to rip them off."

The choice is as old as the law: Do you want to be a defendant or a witness? Juno chose the latter.

In May, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit and gold tie, looking as impeccable as the day he'd appraised the watermelon sword, Juno strode into a federal courtroom to enter his guilty plea. He was chatty, laughing at times, instructing FBI agents on the finer details of the Wilson sword, which lay on a table.

He turned somber when Judge Petrese Tucker called him forward.

"Are you pleading guilty, sir," she asked, "because you are in fact guilty?"

"Yes," Juno answered.

In a brief comment afterward, Juno said that except for his years with Pritchard, he'd never had so much as a phone call of complaint in 30 years of trading.

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