Tuesday, February 27, 2018

'Masterpiece' no more: Antietam secretary exposed as fake

The "Antietam secretary" in Massachusetts antiques dealer Harold Gordon's house in 2011.
Read my story on the fake in The New York TimesLike this blog on Facebook

The eight-foot-high memorial secretary -- a piece of American folk art with a tie to the Battle of Antietam -- has been described as "astonishing," "a rare example of a Civil War mourning rite," "extraordinary" and a "profound piece."

Now there's a new description for the ornate piece of furniture in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn.:

"One of the best folk art fakes of all time."

The secretary on display at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum
Museum of Art in August 2017.
In a lengthy story posted Monday afternoon, Clayton Pennington of Maine Antique Digest reported the secretary was a forgery created by Massachusetts antiques dealer and craftsman Harold Gordon. “I’m going to keep this short. I did it. I made it," he told Pennington.

In 2014, Gordon sold the secretary to noted Connecticut-based antiques dealer Allan Katz, who had the piece tagged at $375,000 at a 2015 winter show. In March 2015, the Wadsworth purchased it from Katz for an undisclosed price, and the museum had it prominently displayed last summer.

Gordon had touted the secretary as a gift presented on July 4, 1876, by Civil War veterans to Wells Bingham in honor of his brother,  John, who was killed at Antietam. The brothers served as privates in the 16th Connecticut. (I first blogged about the secretary in 2011 here, and mentioned it in a story about the Bingham brothers in my 2013 book, Connecticut Yankees at Antietam.)

"Allan fell for it, and to be honest with you, I want to make him whole," Gordon told Pennington. "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." Gordon said there was "nothing" on the secretary when he began turning it into "Antietam" folk art -- a project that took him months to complete.

Spelled out in cattle bone on the ornate front are the words "Antietam" and "Sept. 17, 1862" as well as John's first two initials and last name. A Ninth Corps badge is mounted between the "18" and "76," which are also made of cattle bone. The knobs are bird's-eye maple with bone inset circles. A clock, crowned with an eagle and including the words "The Union Preserved" near the base, is mounted on top. When the inside right front door is opened, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" plays on a music box.

All expertly faked, of course.

Pennington told me the clincher for him was a 2011 photo of the secretary that I had taken at Gordon's house. He compared my image, seen at the top of this post, to another image of the secretary -- unadorned with the bells and whistles -- in the same spot in Gordon's house. In 2011, Gordon told me he had purchased the secretary from a member of the Bingham family.

A close-up of the front of the secretary at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Katz said he plans to offer the Hartford museum a full refund. In a statement e-mailed to me this morning, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art said:
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.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. It's so unfortunate that people are so dishonest that our view of history is distorted. The thrill of authenticating a true relic is reversed by an incident like this. Pure greed.

  2. Anonymous3:16 PM

    The dead of Antietam, including the brother of my g-g-grandmother, who was killed in the fighting at the western end of the Sunken Road, deserve so much better than this deception created by the greedy and dishonest Mr. Gordon.