From the Bergen County Record, Thursday, August 27, 1992

Civil War Relic May Be A Phoney

By LESLIE BRODY, Record Staff Writer

Ever since U.S. marshals ordered Richard Steinmetz to hand over his  Civil War ship's bell almost two years ago, the Westwood antiques dealer  has been fighting a losing battle against the Navy to get it back.  

This week Steinmetz learned that he had lost another round in a  federal appeals court in Philadelphia. But after all the furor over a  bell extolled as a unique historical relic, some naval experts suspect  that the bell's history might be bogus.  

A British fisherman named Peter Trickett came forward recently to  say a buddy drilled the name of a famous Confederate warship, the CSS  Alabama, onto a plain brass bell 20 years ago to make a prop for a home  movie.  

Trickett claims he recognized the prop in a year-old British  newspaper story on the Steinmetz case, under the headline "U.S. Navy  Wins a Ding-Dong Battle for a Bell."  

Steinmetz, however, contends his bell is genuine. And he won't give  up his mission to make the Navy pay him for it.  

"The government has been very arbitrary and unkind, like a child  that stole something," the feisty 55-year-old said Wednesday. "Somewhere  down the road there's got to be justice in America. This isn't a Third  World banana republic."  

Whether the bell's purported past is real or fake, lawyers and  curators say the case sets a powerful precedent in backing the  government's right to seize Confederate artifacts and goods salvaged  from U.S. naval vessels without paying compensation.  

While some historians hailed the decision as a boon for keeping  relics in the public domain, critics warned that it would discourage  collectors from bringing overseas national treasures back to the United  States for fear of losing them.  

As Steinmetz tells his version of the bell's background, an English  diver in 1936 stripped the wreck of the Alabama, a raiding ship that was  sunk off the coast of France in 1864. The diver traded the bell for  drinks at a pub, and eventually it wound up in the hands of a dealer in  Hastings, England. He sold it to Steinmetz 13 years ago for $14,000.  

The U.S. government learned Steinmetz had the bell when he put it  up for auction. On Christmas Eve 1990, U.S. marshals demanded that  Steinmetz turn over the bell. He did so but vowed to fight in court for  its return.  

In May 1991, U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise in Newark  ruled that the bell belongs to the United States because the nation had  captured the ship and is the successor to all the property of the  Confederate government. Debevoise said that fairness would require the  government to pay for the bell, but federal law does not.  

On Friday the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia  upheld that ruling, paraphrasing the words of British poet John Donne.  "Our function is to decide law and thus decide for whom the Alabama's  bell tolls after 128 years," the appeals court said. "It tolls for the  United States."  

The court noted, however, that Steinmetz could ask a congressional  representative to introduce a bill to compensate him. Steinmetz said he  would seek help from Rep. Marge S. Roukema, R-Ridgewood. Roukema could  not be reached for comment Wednesday.  

Steinmetz's lawyer, Peter E. Hess, said he would appeal the latest  ruling and might try to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. "The  Navy is greedy, and they figured they could get something for nothing,"  Hess said.  

Naval history buffs expressed delight at the court's decision,  saying it will deter thieves who strip shipwrecks for profit. It also  will ensure that valuable relics remain public, in the hands of experts  who know how to preserve them, they said.  

"We're not talking about seizing items passed down in someone's  family for generations," said Edward Furgol, curator of the Navy Museum  in Washington. "We're talking about property illegally removed from a  federally owned wreck."  

Such relics can be quite valuable. A Confederate naval uniform in  good condition can fetch $25,000, Furgol said. Steinmetz claimed that a  Texas collector offered him $100,000 for the Alabama's bell if he got it  back.  

Meanwhile, mystery swirls around the true background of the bell,  which the Navy Museum now displays with a tag noting that it might be a  phony.  

William Dudley, senior historian at the Naval Historical Center in  Washington, said Wednesday that skeptics had long harbored doubts about  the 11-inch-tall bell. It seemed too small for a 200-foot-long ship and  too smooth for an antique supposedly under seawater for decades.  

Then in June, the Confederate Naval Historical Society Newsletter  rocked its readers with an interview with Trickett, the 50-year-old  fisherman claiming to have sold the movie prop to a Hastings antique  dealer who knew it was just a joke. Trickett told the Virginia-based  newsletter that Steinmetz bought the "world's most expensive doorstop."  

"I can't see how the U.S. Navy has spent so much taxpayers' money  and time" on the case, he said. "I basically came forward because I like  antiques myself and wouldn't have liked to see that stuck in the museum  as genuine."  

Dudley said, "Trickett can be taken as the truth or another hoax,  but it's such a weird story it sounds like the truth."  

Navy Museum officials want the Smithsonian Institution's  conservation labs to test whether the engraving of the bell's name was  made with 20th-century tools. Scheduling such tests can take weeks.  

To Steinmetz, it seems the Navy Museum was casting such doubts "to  muddy the waters" in case it cannot keep the bell.  

His lawyer, Hess, disputed the skeptics too, saying divers have  searched the Alabama for years and nobody has found another bell.  

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