Fake Civil War Masterpiece: A Tale of Two Photographs

It’s one of the best folk art fakes of all time. It fooled them all: dealers, curators, vetters, journalists, and more. Had it not been for one grainy 72 dpi digital photograph, the dogged persistence of a concerned group of antiquarians, and a dealer who eschewed embarrassment and confronted the possibility head on, the fake might never have been uncovered.

At the 2015 Winter Antiques Show in New York City, Alyce Perry Englund, then the Richard Koopman Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, asked folk art dealer Allan Katz of Woodbridge, Connecticut, to do a short presentation on a major piece in his booth for some members of the museum board in attendance at the show.

Katz was more than happy to show off a remarkable piece of decorated furniture: the circa 1876 Bingham family Civil War memorial secretary that was tagged $375,000.

The board members liked what they heard and quickly agreed to buy the secretary. The Wadsworth Atheneum wasn’t the only museum interested: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also liked it. Katz was happy that the Connecticut relic would stay in the Nutmeg State.

The secretary, according to the provenance, was made by members of Connecticut’s 16th Volunteer Infantry. It honored brothers John and Wells Bingham of East Haddam, Connecticut, who fought at Antietam in 1862. John died in the battle, but Wells escaped uninjured. Over a decade later, friends of Wells presented the veteran with the secretary in memory of his brother. A plaque on the secretary reads: “Presented to Wells A. Bingham by his friends. The secretary a remembrance of his brother John F. Bingham who offered up his life at Antietam, Maryland Sept. 17, 1862. The encased star a remnant of the colors carried that day by the 16th Infantry. The memory plaque made from a shard of his knife. July 4, 1876.”

The 8' tall piece is made of walnut, oak, and maple, ornamented with bone, horn, and abalone. At the top, a Seth Thomas eight-day painted clock with a brass movement is mounted on a plinth with the inscription “The Union Preserved.” A carved eagle perches over the clock dial and grasps in his beak a chain, which falls in a garland with 16 balls, which was possibly a reference to Connecticut’s 16th Infantry, and links to eight turned spire-like finials along the cornice. The eight spires may represent John Bingham’s eight brothers.

M.A.D. included the secretary in its coverage of the Winter Antiques Show. Antiques and The Arts Weekly videotaped Katz expounding on it, and after the show Connecticut newspapers heralded its acquisition by the Wadsworth.

The decorated secretary is a complete forgery, made by longtime Massachusetts antiques dealer and craftsman Harold Gordon.

Katz confirmed that he had purchased the secretary from Gordon. How much Katz paid is in question—Gordon and Katz remember two different figures. Katz, after he sold the secretary to the Wadsworth Atheneum, sent Gordon a check for an additional $25,000.

The Story Unravels

Soon after word of the sale spread, so did whispers about the secretary’s origin.

One member of the trade, who requested anonymity, received information that the secretary was a well-conceived fake. Included in the information was a low-resolution digital photograph of the secretary in an unembellished state.

Disturbed by the fakery, the member of the trade gathered up the courage to contact the Wadsworth Atheneum, calling and e-mailing the photo of the unadorned secretary in October 2016.

“I called the curator, identified myself, and sent the picture,” the trade member said. “They were skeptical, and rightfully so. I mean, ‘Who the hell is this calling me and telling me my wonderful piece is not right?’” said the member of the trade, who has been involved in antiques for several decades.

The museum and the trade member exchanged several e-mails, but ultimately the secretary remained on view.

The Wadsworth Atheneum added to its Internet collections page a line about the secretary, which reads “Information about this work may change as the result of ongoing research.”

Word—and the low-resolution photo—continued to spread, eventually reaching William Hosley of Terra Firma Northeast. Hosley, an ex-curator at the Wadsworth and now a “cultural resource development and marketing consultant, new media expert, historian, museologist and preservationist,” spent 12 years on the vetting committee of the Winter Antiques Show.

This photo circulated among concerned antiquarians. It shows the Bingham secretary in an unadorned state.

“One of my areas of expertise is...the Greek Revival, the 1830s, Empire, that whole period,” Hosley said. “I’ve seen tons of pieces of what I would call vernacular or rural, country Empire furniture. It fascinates me. It’s the last period before the railroads helped crank up industrialization. There were a lot of little towns, and a lot of cabinetmakers still handcrafting bench-made stuff in the 1830s and 1840s.”

Hosley said he was sent the “before and after pictures” of the secretary. “While I could absolutely believe that someone, somewhere made a desk-and-bookcase that looked like that, you could live a thousand years and never see a mate to it. You’ll never see another one with that particular configuration of drawers and doors.

“In my experienced opinion, that is a smoking gun. You don’t need to look further. The base is the foundation of the Bingham thing which is so peculiar and unique in its way.”

The low-resolution image continued circulating among members of the antiques community, along with concern about how to approach the Wadsworth Atheneum—again—about its prized piece. Still, there was no evidence—other than the photo of the base piece of furniture—that the Bingham decorated secretary might not be right.

Curator of American decorative arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum Brandy Culp, who was hired after the secretary was purchased, said she had received information regarding the secretary’s questionable origin. “I’ve launched an extensive research project. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you any of the details of what I’m pushing forward and working on,” she said. Culp confirmed that she had seen “something similar” to the low-resolution image of the unembellished secretary, but she cautioned: “You don’t have the intrinsic evidence. You don’t have the object for analysis. I would challenge you to look very, very carefully at that photo.”

M.A.D. contacted Allan Katz in Arizona and asked if he was aware of the controversy surrounding the secretary. He said he had heard “not a word” regarding its origin. “I’m floored,” he said.

Asked if the Wadsworth Atheneum, which was first alerted to the questions surrounding the secretary in 2016, had ever contacted him, he again repeated, “Not a word.”

“I acquired it from a dealer who claimed he purchased it from descendants of the Bingham family and gave me a story line that was absolutely believable in terms of the lineage in how it was acquired. The concept of it not being real makes so little sense,” Katz said.

“When I got it, I had it mildly cleaned,” he noted. “This thing was yellow. There had been a lot of absorption of smoke; I had seen this before on many objects.”

Katz was surprised, and he found questions about the authenticity of the Bingham secretary hard to believe. “Where it was. The numbers that it changed hands at. The components, as far as the oxidation, when some of the pieces were removed and sent to the scrimshaw museum and the forensic labs,” he said, citing his belief in the object.

“If there is a photograph, I’ve yet to see it,” Katz said.

M.A.D. sent a copy of the low-resolution photo of the unembellished piece to Katz. After viewing the image, he called later that evening. “I believe you’re right,” he said.

Another Photograph Discovered

Between the time Katz was sent the digital image and when he called later that night, I discovered John Banks’s Civil War blog (http://john-banks.blogspot.com).

On April 21, 2015, Banks, author of two books on the Civil War, published a blog post about the Bingham memorial secretary, identified Harold Gordon as the owner, and included a photograph of it in Gordon’s house.

This photo appeared on John Banks’s blog. It shows the Bingham secretary decorated, and many of the same elements of the room appear in both photos. Photo courtesy John Banks.

The digital photo of the now decorated secretary-bookcase appears to be in the same corner of a house as the low-resolution image. There are several of the same objects in each photo: a black-and-white framed piece of art on the wall, a hook on the door frame, a gray carpet, a green floor in the adjoining room, and a hanging arm (but with different objects hanging on them in both photos), and the grain of the wood on the floor is the same. The photo on Banks’s blog is captioned “The ‘Antietam’ secretary in Harold Gordon’s living room.”

After viewing the first photo and being told about the second, Katz offered assistance to resolve the questions about the secretary.

Katz said, “My head is whirling. I can’t understand the motivation for doing this—the concept of the motivation to make this in contemporary times.”

The secretary raised few questions when Katz initially examined it. “When I took this thing apart, everything seemed right, from the star inside the metal case which was a cutoff brass can of baking powder with an early piece of glass. When we took the letters off, there was oxidation. There was yellowing of the letters that I cleaned because they were coated with decades of pipe smoke or cigar smoke.”

He wasn’t the only one. “No alarm bells went off when I looked at this thing,” said Cincinnati auctioneer and dealer Wes Cowan, an expert in Civil War material, who saw the secretary in Katz’s booth.

 “He [Harold Gordon] told me he had been offered all kinds of money for it at auction and didn’t want to risk it,” Katz continued. “I went into this house where this piece had been. He claimed he had purchased it from the Bingham family.”

Katz said that when the secretary was vetted at the Winter Antiques Show, it was not vetted as a piece of furniture. “This was a piece of material culture. We kind of determined that it was put together. The form is odd, but it wasn’t necessarily made from scratch. Had that occurred, with the craftsmanship involved, you would have thought that the form would have been a little more elegant. We determined that when they made this thing in 1876, it was from an existing piece of furniture.”

Katz took the bull by the horns and contacted Harold Gordon on February 23, and Gordon admitted that he had fabricated the whole thing. “I will call the atheneum in the morning, offer them a complete and total refund, and take it back,” said Katz. “I’m all for truth, justice, and transparency.”

We called Gordon on February 24. “I’m going to keep this short. I did it. I made it. I did the provenance, the whole bit. Allan fell for it, and to be honest with you, I want to make him whole. It was not fair what I did. It was a terrible thing, but I did it for the money—I didn’t do it for the glory.

“He [Katz] believed it, as did the vetting committee, and as far as the Wadsworth Atheneum, there was never a problem. I hoped it would pass on into eternity, but it didn’t. I regret I didn’t leave it in my living room where it was for many years.... I did every piece on that: the figures, the engraving. I did it all. I desperately needed the money,” he said.

 “It took me, on and off, months to make it. I made every piece of decoration. I made the finials, all the decoration on the clock, the curly maple dividers, the knobs, and the inlay. There was nothing on this when I started.”

Gordon said he created the secretary for himself. “It sat in my living room for years. I had it for quite a while and picked away at it—a part here and a part there. I would move on to other projects, and then come back to it. It sort of developed. It’s like nothing I’ve ever built before.

“It’s a terrible thing I’ve done. I really like Allan. He’s a nice guy. It’s not like I was seeking revenge on him, or to show up everybody and say, ‘Ha, ha, ha, I fooled an expert.’ That was never my point. It was the money.... At first I wiggled around with Allan, and then I said this is stupid. I might as well just admit the damn thing and be over it. If it was a couple of other clowns in the business, I wouldn’t care less. But Allan is a fine man with a tremendous amount of integrity. He’s terribly wounded by this. I feel badly about the whole situation. I feel badly that I’ve hurt someone like this...an honorable and forthright man.

“The holes I drilled for the finials—I did a very good job of aging those, I must admit. One of my better jobs. I made the finials, all the decoration around the clock. I made the eagle—I still have all the parts. I have a box full of cut-up pieces. I sawed out all the letters. I studied Latin to get the right words. All the chain work. The interior. The curly maple drawer dividers. The curly maple spindles. I made those and aged them nicely. All the knobs, top and bottom. The curly maple drawer fronts inside the cabinet. I put the inkwell on and the music box, which I did have working but it broke; it played ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ when you opened the door. I turned all the knobs. I engraved all the figures of the famous Americans. Where are you going to find those? I made them. I engraved the bone plaque. I cut out the shield with the anchor and the sword.”

Gordon said the back story was created because he had some dealings with the Binghams. “I knew Edgar Bingham since the 70s. I did the appraisal on his estate, and I bought some things from his sisters. In it was some Bingham material, and I traced that back....that’s the black magic that started it all.”

Katz said, “We were all deceived by a master artisan and con man. I’m pleased that I could play a key role in exposing this deceit. It’s truly sad that Mr. Gordon did not spend his life and talents contributing to the art and antiques community world but rather deceiving it.”

Harold Gordon summed it all up at the end of our phone call. “I made it. End of story.”

On February 27, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art released a statement:

“As stated clearly in our mission statement, we hold our collections in trust for all people, and we are dedicated to advancing knowledge and inspiring everyone to experience and appreciate excellence in art and culture. To realize that mission, we work to acquire items for our collections. In the acquisition and accession process we strive to confirm the authenticity of every item in accordance with our Collections Management Policy.

“In late 2016, we received an anonymous report that one of the items acquired for our folk art collection in February 2015—a piece of antique furniture adorned with relics of the civil war at the time of the American centennial, 1876—was fake. We began to investigate and in 2017 took the item off view at the Atheneum until the investigation could be completed. One of the steps we took was to engage a materials scientist to try to determine the age and timeframe of the adornments. Other steps included a thorough review of a wide variety of historical sources and our own records in an attempt to scrutinize the authenticity.

“This week, we learned that a Massachusetts antiques picker and craftsman has reportedly confessed to adorning the antique secretary himself, forging the provenance documentation, and misleading the dealer to whom he sold the piece. That dealer, who sold it to the Atheneum, has offered the museum a complete and total refund. We are also in contact with the appropriate authorities to follow up on this matter.

“While it can be difficult to authenticate folk art of this kind, and this was by all accounts a masterful forgery that fooled a number of experts in this field, we will review our accession process and make every effort to ensure that art we acquire is what it purports to be.

“We thank the concerned individuals who brought this to our attention and pursued this matter to this conclusion. We take our role as a steward of the public trust to be paramount and appreciate your support. Collections are fundamental to this institution’s identity, essential to its core function as a place for art and public engagement, and a defining element of our present and future plans.  We will continue to do our best to identify, authenticate, acquire, preserve and present culturally significant works of art in our collections.”

© 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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