The museum that bought the Civil War memorial secretary desk, said to have been created around 1876, has now acknowledged it as an exquisite fake. And the forger has stepped forward, not only to apologize for his sin but also to bask a bit in his artful deception.
The Civil War memorial secretary desk was widely embraced as a folk-art treasure. Fashioned from walnut, maple and oak, it was said to have been created around 1876 to honor John Bingham, a Union infantryman who had fallen at Antietam.
Profusely adorned, it featured a music box that played “Yankee Doodle” and it was accompanied by a letter from a Bingham descendant, describing the significance of the piece to the family.
“I was astonished by it,” said Wes Cowan, an auctioneer and dealer who examined the secretary at the Winter Antiques Show in New York in 2015.
The owner, Allan Katz, had bought it months earlier from a Massachusetts dealer for an undisclosed price, and was trying to sell it for $375,000.
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“Clearly,” Katz, a Connecticut antiques dealer, said in a video filmed at the show, “we are hoping that it might go to an institution, because it really would be wonderful to share this with the public on a day-to-day basis.”
So it was gratifying, Katz said in an interview, when the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford purchased the piece and gave it prominent display.
In recent weeks, though, the museum has had to acknowledge that the carefully crafted secretary with the compelling story is actually an exquisite fake. And the forger has now come forward, not only to acknowledge and apologize for his sin but also to bask a bit in how artful his deception has been.
“It’s the apotheosis of my own making,” the forger, Harold Gordon, said in a recent interview. Gordon sold the piece to Katz, and in the process fooled many experts in the antiques world.
“I lied,” said Gordon, 69. “I cheated. I stole.”
Creating a history
Fake antiques are far from rare, but few match the sort of ambitions and artistry as that created by Gordon, experts said. Robert Cheney, director of the Willard House & Clock Museum in North Grafton, Massachusetts, likened this caper to that of the “great Brewster chair,” created in 1969 by a former police officer who passed it off as a rare, 350-year-old piece. It ended up in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.
Occasionally, museums display fakes intentionally. One of the most popular recent exhibitions at the Winterthur in Delaware was devoted to forgeries, according to Linda Eaton, co-curator of that display. It opened, appropriately, last April Fools’ Day.
Gordon said that he had no grand plan for trickery when he set out around 2010 to create his phony memorial in the workshop at his home in Templeton, about an hour outside Boston. A self-taught woodworker, he labored off and on for months as he turned a plain-looking, if old, secretary into a detailed piece rich with the patina of history.
Gordon, a stickler for details, said he tried to imagine how a simple, rural country craftsman in the mid-19th century would have approached such a project. “What standards of excellence did they have?” he asked himself.
Among his additions: a clock crowned by an eagle and the words “The Union Preserved” near the base.
But to make it work, he said he knew it would need a story. So Gordon, a student of history, imagined the piece as an heirloom of the Binghams, a real family with Civil War ancestors.
John Bingham and his brother Wells, both from East Haddam, were privates in the 16th Connecticut Infantry, who, as teenagers, saw their first action on Sept. 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam.
John, 17, was killed there; Wells, 16, survived.
Gordon said that he decided to describe his handiwork as a gift that had been presented on July 4, 1876, by Civil War veterans to Wells in honor of John, and then handed down to Wells’ son, Edgar. He had appraised the estate of a Bingham family member, giving him insight into their ancestry.
He taped a typewritten note inside the secretary that he had dated Sept. 22, 1972. It, too, was forged, embellished with aged, yellowed tape, artful tears and typing errors. He signed it by mimicking what he imagined to be the shaky hand of an elderly Edgar M. Bingham.
“This desk made for my father Wells Anderson Bingham,” the note read, in part. “A tribute to his brother John killed September 17, 1862, at the battle of Antietam.”
In handcrafted “barnyard bone” — from a cow or horse — Gordon spelled out “Antietam” and “Sept. 17, 1862,” the bloodiest day in American history, and mounted them on a front drawer.
In a crowning touch, Gordon attached a canister to the front of the secretary, and in it he placed a small scrap of a flag bearing a star. He had found a piece of period fabric, which he presented as a remnant of a flag carried by the 16th during the battle.
“I was never at a point where I was doing it to show off, to show how great I was,” Gordon said. “It simply became a creative process.”
At first, Gordon said, he left the secretary in his living room where he occasionally entertained offers from visitors who wanted to buy it. He always declined. But then he ran into some money problems, he said, and decided to unload it to Katz in an act of desperation.
The Wadsworth, which has not disclosed what it paid for the secretary, displayed it as a powerful artifact, beautiful in its creation and meaningful in its significance to the history of Connecticut. But in late 2016, it received an anonymous tip that the piece was fake, investigated and late last year quietly removed it from public view.
S. Clayton Pennington, editor of Maine Antique Digest, was also tipped off to the problem with the secretary. He soon found a photograph that had been taken in the Gordon living room of an unadorned secretary that looked suspiciously like an image he had found online of the fully realized Bingham memorial secretary in the same spot.
But when he first spoke with the museum, a curator told him, he said, that the institution was still studying the issue of authenticity. He also called Katz and told him about his finding. Katz said that he then confronted Gordon, who confessed and apologized.
“It has been a humbling and difficult experience,” Katz said recently, “but at least I was able to play a key role in helping to expose this masterpiece of deception.”
In late February, Pennington published a lengthy report that declared the secretary a forgery. After the article appeared, the Wadsworth issued a statement, promising to “review our accession process and make every effort to ensure that art we acquire is what it purports to be.”
Katz, a dealer in American folk art since 1985, gave the museum a full refund. He said that he was not ready to decide yet whether he would try to recover any losses from Gordon.
Gordon, an antiques dealer since the 1970s, said he figured he was a “pariah” in the business now because of the forgery. “It has ruined my life,” he said, but he said no legal action had been taken against him.
Still, he exhibits a creator’s pride toward the craftsmanship he displayed. “That thing,” he said, “should be in a museum.”
One Bingham descendant said that he found the hoax amusing, even if Gordon had falsified a portion of his family’s history.
Michael Cone, a 64-year-old retired physician from Maryland, who has an interest in the Civil War, said he has ancestors on both sides, including the Bingham brothers. Cone, who was born in Louisiana, said he did not mind that the brothers’ history had been misappropriated.
“They deserved it,” he said, jokingly, “since they were my Yankee cousins.”