Published: March 6, 2018
By W.A. Demers
NEW YORK CITY – A darling of the 2015 Winter Antiques Show, a piece of decorated furniture identified as a circa 1876 Civil War memorial secretary shown by Connecticut folk art dealer Allan Katz, has been revealed as a furniture forgery. In a February 26 article in Maine Antique Digest (MAD), the deceptive desk is described as “one of the best folk art fakes of all time,” having slipped through the connoisseurship radar of the show’s vetters, fellow dealers, museum curators, as well as the trade and general press. This publication, in fact, videotaped Katz showcasing the piece’s many features and symbology tying into the East Haddam, Conn., Bingham family, the Civil War and the American centennial (to see the video, go to https://vimeo.com/117592581).
The deception is documented in side-by-side photos MAD published in its article, one showing an unadorned secretary in the corner of the household of Massachusetts antiques dealer Harold Gordon, who reportedly sold it to Katz, and another showing the same piece in the same corner after it had been painstakingly embellished with folky applications of bone inlays, lettering, finials, clock with dial and even a carved eagle perched on its top. The photos are not fake news, but the secretary, which was acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum, certainly is.
Gordon told MAD that he transformed the plain writing desk into the “Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary” and created a backstory of how it was a gift given to a Civil War veteran in honor of his brother who was killed at the Battle of Antietam because he needed money. A Civil War history buff and blogger, John Banks, was the one who took the photo of the transformed desk, telling Antiques and The Arts Weekly that Gordon had contacted him in 2011 and invited him to his home to photograph it. That image was published along with a description and other photos of the piece’s details on Banks’ Civil War blog – www.john-banks.blogspot.com – in April 2015.
MAD reported that Katz had priced the altered piece at $375,000 at the 2015 show.
The museum said in a statement on February 26 that Katz has offered it a full refund and, through a spokesperson, provided the following response:
“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.”
While the museum said that it will continue to do its best to identify, authenticate, acquire, preserve and present culturally significant works of art in its collections, a hope expressed by one furniture and folk art dealer is that the museum will continue to exhibit the piece as a “teachable moment” on the subject of fakes, forgeries and connoisseurship.
Wes Cowan, Civil War expert and president of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio, told Antiques and The Arts Weekly that he was on a vetting committee – although not the folk art committee – at the 2015 Winter Antiques Show and saw the desk in Katz’s booth. Asked if it seemed authentic, Cowan said, “Absolutely. It was over the top but so well done, combined with the whole narrative that he [Gordon] told. He was a genius at putting the story together. That backstory did it for me.”
Briefly, the “provenance” fabricated by Gordon indicated that the secretary had been crafted by members of Connecticut’s 16th Volunteer Infantry to honor brothers John and Wells Bingham of East Haddam, who fought at Antietam in 1862. John died in the battle, but Wells survived. His friends reportedly presented him with the secretary in memory of his brother on July 4, 1876.
Cowan added that he has seen plenty of such centennial memorial material over his 25 years in business, although nothing on the scale of this piece of furniture. Soldier-made items, especially prisoner of war material, and later with the development of the Grand Army of the Republic and Confederate counterparts, there is a wealth of historical memorabilia relating to the nation’s 100th anniversary. “Really, it was the 1876 date that resonated with me because so much American folk art stems from the US centennial,” he said.
Cowan describes Katz as a “stand-up guy” and believes that he “did what he could do” to present the desk as a bona fide item of American folk art. Similarly, he does not fault the show’s vetting committee, the Wadsworth or the trade press, which were “all doing their jobs.” The bottom line for him: “Where there is money to be made, there will always be a faker.”
Social media comments on MAD‘s Facebook page following the story posting ranged from the observation “I bet if you auction it off now, it would still fetch a few hundred thousand, somebody with too much money would want it for this story” to the inevitable call for “jail time.”
Will – or should – Gordon be legally pursued for his deception?
Colette Loll, founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, a Washington, DC-based firm that provides educational outreach on the topics of art forgery, cultural heritage crimes and the emerging role of forensic science in the attribution process, believes he should be prosecuted. She points out another factor to consider in this case – market excitement. “I am not a specialist in furniture. I am, however, an expert on fakes, and I can tell you this does not surprise me one bit,” she said. “I have seen some very sophisticated fakes; especially when you combine a real craftsman with someone who has the time and inclination to do the proper art historical research that makes it plausible. Market excitement does the rest – especially if brought to the market by a reputable dealer.”
Loll, who helped organize the 2017 exhibition “Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes” at Winterthur Museum, added that the real harm, beyond the financial victimization, is “the ability to distort the art historical record, especially when placed in prominent museum collections. This is a serious crime and, in my opinion, this fraudster should be in jail. This would provide the necessary deterrence the art market needs to see to prevent what has become a pervasive problem.”
When Antiques and The Arts Weekly reached Katz on February 26, he said he was still grappling with the news that had reached him only the week before. He asked if he might speak to us later.
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