From the Bergen
County Record, Thursday, August 27, 1992
War Relic May Be A Phoney
BRODY, Record Staff Writer
U.S. marshals ordered Richard Steinmetz to hand over his Civil
War ship's bell almost two years ago,
the Westwood antiques dealer has
fighting a losing battle against the Navy to get it back.
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.
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.
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."
however, contends his bell is genuine. And he won't give up
his mission to make the Navy pay him for
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
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
naval vessels without paying compensation.
historians hailed the decision as a boon for keeping relics
in the public domain, critics warned that it would
overseas national treasures back to the United States
for fear of losing them.
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.
government learned Steinmetz had the bell when he put it up
for auction. On Christmas Eve 1990, U.S.
marshals demanded that Steinmetz
over the bell. He did so but vowed to fight in court for its
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.
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
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.
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
greedy, and they figured they could get something for nothing," Hess
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Steinmetz bought the "world's most expensive doorstop."
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
"Trickett can be taken as the truth or another hoax, but
it's such a weird story it sounds like
officials want the Smithsonian Institution's conservation
labs to test whether the engraving of the bell's name
with 20th-century tools.
Scheduling such tests can take weeks.
Steinmetz, it seems the Navy Museum was casting such doubts "to muddy
the waters" in case it cannot keep
Hess, disputed the skeptics too, saying divers have searched
Alabama for years and nobody has found another bell.