Surrounded by his collection of Civil War firearms, relics and memorabilia, New Windsor’s Dan Hartzler draws a sword that belonged to his wife’s great grandfather, Pvt. Frank L. Hering, a horse soldier who served with Company D, First Maryland Cavalry.
Written By Jeffrey Roth, Photos by: Phil Grout
People collect historic memorabilia for varied reasons: as a hobby, for business, for nostalgia and as a tangible link to the past.
As the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War started and interest in the period increased, experts predicted that the current slump in the market for Civil War memorabilia would disappear.
Consequently, it is a foregone conclusion that the number of stolen, faked and fantasy Civil War items offered for sale to the unwary consumer would increase significantly. There is no shortage of people willing to peddle America’s history to the highest bidder.
Fantasy items are modern, manufactured pieces that did not really exist during the Civil War. Any slave tags reportedly from Charleston, Charleston Neck or Mississippi are fantasy items because no genuine slave tags from those areas are known to exist.
Internationally, the black market in stolen, faked and fantasy collectibles, which includes relics, artifacts, art and cultural items, accounts for $6 billion annually, according to former FBI Special Agent Robert Wittman, the founder and senior investigator of the FBI’s Art Crime Team.
The author, with John Shiffman, of Priceless, How I went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, (Crown, $25), Wittman helped recover stolen works by Rembrandt, Rockwell, Monet, Picasso and Rodin, among others, and tracked down a rare Civil War battle flag carried by African-American regiments.
There are no reliable estimates on the number or value of stolen, faked and fantasy Civil War pieces available on the market at any given time. For years, publicity about thefts of historic documents and artifacts from museums and government archives has been suppressed. Nearly 90 percent of all museum thefts that are resolved turn out to be inside jobs, said Wittman, who now operates a private art security and recovery firm.
Case in point: In 2006, Denning McTague was arrested for stealing a number of historic documents from the National Archives and Records Administration branch in Philadelphia. A tip from a Gettysburg historian, publisher and author, Dean Thomas, the owner of Thomas Publications, alerted the FBI that some of the nation’s treasures were being sold on eBay.
“They were stolen by an intern,” said Thomas. “I spotted them after they turned up for sale on eBay. I thought some of them looked familiar, so I checked my files. I had made copies of some of them 15 years before.”
McTague was tasked with arranging and organizing documents for the sesquicentennial. The majority of the documents were related to military logistics. The investigation led to McTague’s arrest and a 15-month prison sentence for stealing more than 150 documents from the National Archives in a backpack. The documents included an 1865 order from the War Department announcing the death of President Lincoln to the troops and a letter from Confederate cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart.
In October 2010, acting on a tip, the Inspector General’s Office raided the Rockville, Md., home of Leslie Waffen, former head of the National Archives audio and film department. Authorities recovered stolen documents and a valuable audiovisual collection in Waffen’s basement. The stolen items filled two trucks, authorities said.
For obvious reasons, museums, public archives and historical societies are loath to release information about thefts. Besides the embarrassment factor, officials do not want the public to know how easy it is to steal valuable pieces of history.
“We have a very secure archive room because in the past, things walked,” said Timatha S. Pierce, executive director of the Historical Society of Carroll County, Westminster. “No one can look at primary materials unless the curator has oversight of the entire process and unless they are really, really vetted. The secondary benefit of that is so mishandling doesn’t cause damage.”
Pierce and officials with the National Archives note that one of the reasons many document thefts are not noticed is because the volume of records being archived is so great.
Pierce said the historical society has between 35,000 to 40,000 artifacts and documents in its collection. The National Archive system has literally billions of documents under its care; and not all have been documented and recorded in its inventory. The National Archives maintains a web page that contains an updated list of its missing items. Missing Civil War documents range from telegrams sent by Abraham Lincoln to letters written by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
“Buyer beware” is sound advice when buying Civil War or historic or cultural collectibles. Area Civil War collectors and appraisers readily admit that it is easy to be scammed. The knowledge required to authenticate items is often extremely specialized.
Daniel Hartzler, a New Windsor funeral director, Civil War collector and author of 19 books on Maryland history, said that although the dangers inherent in collecting are great, so are the rewards. The single most important lesson a novice collector should learn is how to vet honest and knowledgeable relic dealers.
“Anytime I can buy a reproduction Maryland belt buckle, I buy it so I that when I buy an original, I have something to compare it to,” said Hartzler, whose book, Confederate Presentation and Inscribed Swords and Revolvers (Olde Soldier Books, $60), details how to spot fakes and fantasy relics from the real thing.
“Some of these bear a mark on the back that says it isn’t original,” said Hartzler. “That is good. You get them in the wrong person’s hands, however, and they will take that mark off and then bury the buckle or put it in the reservoir of a toilet for several months to get a patina on it É the main thing on looking at something is the color of the thing. A way to spot a fake is by measuring the buckle’s dimensions with a micrometer. If it is a half a millimeter larger than the dimensions of verified authentic buckles, it is probably a fake.”
Ron Meininger, a part-time government video producer, and long-time collector from Gaithersburg, said collecting stamps started his love affair with history. Owner of Antebellum Covers, he provides research services free to selected clients. His focus is primarily on paper items. An advocate of history education, Meininger donates documents and other relics to area schools as a way of sharing his enthusiasm for the subject.
“The majority of Confederate items are fakes, forgeries or reproductions,”said Meininger. “Of the total Confederate items sold, only a small percentage are authentic.”
Kieth Goettner, of Lineboro, a retired Maryland State Police trooper, became interested in collecting memorabilia while working in southern Maryland. Now, besides collecting, Goettner owns and operates Southern Command, a military collectibles dealership located in the Antique Center of Gettysburg. Earlier this year, Goettner and retired fellow MSP trooper, J.W. Long, were featured in a Civil War segment of the History Channel show, “American Pickers.”
“I’ve seen my share of fakes and fantasies,” said Goettner. “Most recently, I had a gentlemen who said he had bought a piece of Confederate currency and wanted me to take a look at it. It was a reproduction produced in the 1950s and ’60s. It is important to find reputable dealers and get references. Call the National Park Service and check the objects out thoroughly.”
Robert Harrison, of Harrison Appraisals, Westminster, who specializes in 18th and 19th Century antiques and decorative arts, said that the first step is to check the provenance of an item: a certificate of authenticity. Unfortunately, a certificate of authenticity is no guarantee, because they, too, can be easily forged.
“We have to look at form and design,” said Harrison. “It’s amazing what people bring in: felt tip pen writing on paper that they were led to believe was original.”
Reputable dealers are a must, but even they can be fooled, said Harrison. Appraisals by experts can be another step in verifying that the item is as advertised. But, he added, no one appraiser can be an expert in everything. The key consideration is the cost of the item; if it costs thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, subjecting the item to various scientific tests, such as mass spectrometry, which can determine the chemical signature of an object, may be warranted.
All of the experts agreed that buying collectible items through an online Internet site, such as eBay, is a bad idea. In fact, eBay has garnered a reputation for carrying stolen, faked and fantasy memorabilia.
Use experts, libraries, and study, study, study. But the bottom line is caveat emptor, Harrison said. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
Zip! Into the Black Market
As we went to press, the FBI was investigating the apparent theft of valuable historical items from the library of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. A dollar amount was not immediately available.
A week after the first draft of this article was completed, Gaithersburg collector Ron Meininger reported that some of his historic documents were stolen. On Saturday, June 25, the last day of the two-day 37th Annual Civil War Collectors Show, held near Gettysburg, Meininger, who was one of the vendors, was packing up historical documents and other paper artifacts when he discovered that several items were missing. Apparently, a total of more than 70 valuable Civil War documents, letters and general paper Americana worth an estimated $10,000, had been stolen.
Ironically, just 20 feet away from his table, federal agents with the National Archives Recovery Team, manned a display designed to educate the public about stolen historical documents.
Meininger is offering a $1,000 reward for recovery of the box of documents. A full inventory of the stolen items are available on his website, www.antebellumcovers.com.