Civil War relics draw visitors and con artists

Pickett collection rightfully belongs to Pa. museum, courts rule

September 15, 2002|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HARRISBURG, Pa. - One hundred and thirty-nine years after the climactic charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's Confederate cap rests here north of the Mason-Dixon line, a prime historic relic that has seen better but hardly richer days.

With the recent sentencing of the last of three convicted con men in the top-dollar underworld of ill-gotten Civil War memorabilia, the general's nattily crushed kepi is encased like a gray-and-gold punctuation mark in the year-old National Civil War Museum.

"That kepi is rightfully mine," bemoans George E. Pickett V, the general's great-great-grandson. "It's part of the theft of my property by a Yankee carpetbagging con artist."

Pickett refers to Russell Pritchard III, a convicted felon who was once respected as a charming television evaluator of relics on PBS' Antiques Roadshow. Pritchard showed up one day in Wilmington, N.C., and talked the Pickett family into selling a trunkful of war souvenirs for $87,500.

Fast as a midnight flanking movement, Pritchard then sold the trove to the war museum here for a fair-market price of $870,000, pocketing the profit.

From North and South, the buffs are journeying here in increasing numbers to stare reverently at the Pickett kepi. No less do they savor the general's military sash, a lock of his golden, Custer-like curls and, most impressive, a map he drew, unknown until now, of the lethal battlefield that marked the retreat of Gen. Robert E. Lee's army.

`It's great stuff'

"It's great stuff never before seen," says Mayor Stephen R. Reed, this capital city's 20-year chief executive and reigning Civil War buff who avidly envisioned and created the $32 million museum.

"We had a zero role in the duplicity of those scoundrels," says the mayor, lapsing into unprintable language at the scope of the fraud that federal authorities uncovered in the busy Civil War marketplace.

"It's not as if we defrauded Mr. Pickett," Reed said, while sympathizing with Pickett as a kind of postwar casualty. "We paid top market value, and the courts have ruled the Pickett collection remains rightfully ours."

The general's descendant says he has thus far been frustrated in obtaining the full $800,000 in restitution the courts ordered the defendants to pay him.

Pritchard and his partner and veteran dealer, George Juno, were convicted in an ambitious series of frauds. The two staged fake appraisals on the TV Roadshow that increased their reputations and access to family treasures. Russell Pritchard Jr., who possesses far more genuine expertise than his salesman son as the longtime director of the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia, was also convicted.

Quite perversely, says Reed, these schemers were able to track down treasures that might never have been found and put into public view, but for their brazen methods.

The younger Pritchard would seek out aged and infirm family members of war figures, including George Pickett V's mother. He presented himself as an agent of the Harrisburg museum interested only in providing a historic showcase and a fair price to the family. He would grossly underpay for the items and then resell them for much more in the legitimate market.

The three men told one victim that an heirloom uniform was a mere "costume" that they had donated to Goodwill Industries; in reality, it was sold privately for $67,500. The younger Pritchard increased the collector's price of another supposedly negligible offering, an officer's tunic, by having Tiffany's craft four gold stars that he sewed on before selling it for $51,500. Pickett discovered that some rare framed photographs of the general borrowed for laser duplication were returned with the copies, not the originals, in the frames.

`The cannon scheme'

"And then there was the cannon scheme," says C. Peter Jorgensen, publisher of The Civil War News, a respected journal for buffs and collectors that helped uncover the fraud. "They wrote to private cemeteries all over the country that had decorative Civil War cannons, making a big pitch about their historic mission. They'd pay $5,000 per cannon and resell them for $30,000."

There are perhaps 40 or 50 private collectors described by Jorgensen as "moneyed people who will buy a $50,000 sword with a gold hilt and a couple diamonds and an inscription to a general." He says guileless descendants like Pickett are increasingly at risk as the market booms and charlatans arise, bedeviling the majority of honest dealers in the process.

The prized memorabilia that motivated the defrauders can best be appreciated in a visit to the $50 million collection here in the handsome new museum, 40 miles north of Gettysburg. It features a high-tech, deliberately balanced presentation of the war rich with relics, from Stonewall Jackson's battle gauntlet to Lincoln's second inaugural top hat. It ends with old newsreels of the final reunions of the last, bewhiskered warriors shaking hands in their 10th decade and waving to posterity.

`A huge market'

"There's a huge market in this stuff," said Patrick Meehan, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. An FBI specialist, Robert Wittman, and a prosecutor, Bob Goldman, won the relic fraud convictions as part of a continuing investigation into varied memorabilia abuses, from sports to history collectors, Meehan said.

Pickett takes no comfort at all in the display of the Pickett treasures before thousands of museum visitors. "I was swindled out of them, and the city should return my property to me," he firmly contends, even as the city suggests his ancestor had a better chance of taking Cemetery Hill than Pickett has of regaining the kepi.

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