How an antiques reporter exposed 'one of the best folk art fakes of all time'

An old desk passed off as a Civil War memorial has been exposed as a fraud thanks to a dogged antiques journalist and a pair of "smoking gun" photographs.
A civil war-era secretary desk acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in 2015 has turned out to be a forgery. The left image, which was circulated among 'concerned antiquarians,' shows the desk before it was adorned by Massachusetts antique dealer Harold Gordon. The image on the right was taken in Gordon's home by Civil War blogger John Banks. (Maine Antique Digest, John Banks’ Civil War blog)
Listen6:00

When Clayton Pennington first spotted the elaborately adorned secretary desk at the 2015 Winter Antiques Show in New York City, he says he was "absolutely blown away by it."

Priced at $375,000 US, the piece was touted as an 1867 Civil War tribute, decorated by members of the 16th Volunteer Infantry and gifted to veteran Wells Bingham of East Haddam, Conn., in honour of his brother John, who died at the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

"It was one of my favourite things in the show," the Maine Antique Digest reporter told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"When you opened the door, it played Yankee Doodle Dandy. It had a piece of a regimental flag on it, Latin sayings, an eagle with a clock on top. I mean, the thing was just absolutely over the top."

Pennington would later go on expose the desk as "one of the best folk art fakes of all time," created by longtime Massachusetts antiques dealer and craftsman Harold Gordon.

It should end up in a museum somewhere as a study piece, because it is a fantastic forgery.- Clayton Pennington, Maine Antique Digest 

Pennington wasn't the only one fooled by the desk.

Art dealer Allan Katz was so taken by it that he purchased it from Gordon, sang its praises at the New York show, then sold it to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., at an undisclosed price.

'Smoking gun'

But shortly after, a digital photograph started to circulate among "a group of concerned antiquarians in the Northeast," Pennington said. 

That photo, he said, turned out to be "the smoking gun" that cracked the case wide open.

It showed what appeared to be the same desk, standing in the corner of a home, completely unadorned.

Clayton Pennington, editor of the Maine Antique Digest, broke the story of a Civil War secretary desk forgery so convincing it fooled professional art dealers. (Maine Antique Digest)

Pennington reached out to an expert in furniture from that era. 

"He said that is a piece made by a country cabinet-maker," Pennington said.

"You will never find another combination of drawers and doors in that form again. You can look for a thousand years and you'll never find another one."

Confession: 'I did it for the money'

As he was working on his investigation, he came across another photograph, this one from a Civil War blog run by historian and author John Banks.

It showed the same desk standing the same corner of the same room — this time fully adorned. 

Banks told As It Happens he took the picture in Gordon's living room.

The implication was clear — Civil War veterans did not decorate the desk. Gordon did.

This photo from John Banks’ Civil War blog shows the desk after it had been altered to appear as if it was decorated by members of the Connecticut’s 16th Volunteer Infantry. (John Banks/John Banks' Civil War blog )

Gordon did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment, but he confessed in full to Pennington, the New York Times and the Hartford Courant newspaper.

"I'm going to keep this short. I did it. I made it. I did the provenance, the whole bit," Gordon told the Maine Antique Digest.

"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."

'By all accounts a masterful forgery'

Katz also declined to comment, but a museum spokesperson told As It Happens that he has offered a full refund.

The museum said it received an anonymous tip about the desk in 2016 and took it off display last year while it investigated. 

Periodical illustrations and wood engravings from Harper's weekly depict the Battle of Antietam, fought Sept. 17, 1862. Gordon decorated an antique desk to look like a memorial to a soldier who died in this battle. (U.S. Library of Congress)

"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," the Wadsworth Atheneum said in a statement.

"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," the statement reads.

As for the desk, Pennington said it's unclear what will become of it. 

"It should end up in a museum somewhere as a study piece, because it is a fantastic forgery," he said.

Story by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.