A piece of folk-art antique furniture acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in 2015 is a forgery, the piece’s creator has admitted.
Gordon confirmed in a phone interview with The Courant that he “embellished a piece that already existed,” turning a plain secretary into an elaborately decorated piece that was touted as a gift given to a Civil War veteran from East Haddam as a memorial of the Battle of Antietam.
“It’s a total fabrication,” Gordon said. “I realize that the best thing is to say … this is what I did and to pay the consequences.”
After creating the “Bingham Family Civil War Memorial Secretary,” Gordon said, he sold it to Woodbridge antiques dealer Allan Katz. Gordon would not reveal the price, but “I did it because I needed the money.” Katz could not be reached for comment.
Gordon expressed remorse for his actions.
“I have tremendous regret that I pulled this on Allan Katz. He is an honorable man,” Gordon said.
Katz showed the piece in the 2015 Winter Antiques Show in New York. Katz’s page in the show’s catalog described it: “This monumental secretary was presented to Wells A. Bingham in honor of his brother John F. Bingham who was killed at the Battle of Antietam (Maryland) September 17, 1862. Made by ‘friends’ of the Bingham Brothers, the presentation took place in Hartford, Connecticut on July 4, 1876.”
At the show, the piece was spotted by Alyce Perry Englund, who at the time was the Atheneum’s curator of American decorative arts. Englund, who is now assistant curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, declined to comment.
At the time of the purchase, Englund told Antiques & Auction News that the secretary “tells a story so tragic and deeply rooted in our country’s heritage it is a treasure to behold for art and history buffs alike.”
The Atheneum released a statement on Monday after Pennington’s story:
“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,” the statement read. “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 are also in contact with the appropriate authorities to follow up on this matter.”
The Atheneum statement said that the museum has been offered a full refund, although it did not reveal what Katz was paid for the piece. At the Winter Antiques Show, the secretary was listed at $375,000, Pennington reported.
Pennington was tipped off about the fabrication by “concerned antiquarians.”
“It’s a magnificent forgery. It’s one of the biggest folk-art forgeries of all time,” Pennington said.
Brandy Culp, the Atheneum’s current curator of American decorative arts, was not available for comment. William Hosley, a former curator of American decorative arts at the Atheneum and a former member of the American furniture vetting committee at the Winter Antiques Show, said rumors have been floating around for months about the piece’s authenticity. Still, he said, he can understand how the mistake was made.
“I saw it for sale in New York before the Atheneum bought it. Anybody would look at that thing and think it was an amazing thing,” Hosley said. “The Winter Antiques Show is secure and prestigious. That’s a venue that is not supposed to have problems like this.”