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The Great Antique Hoax: How a forged Civil War piece fooled the experts

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The federal trial has ended and Allan Katz can finally talk.

We meet in October outside New Haven at a warehouse where the famous antiques dealer stores some of the items he is cataloging. He leads me to a small office occupied by a single spectacular piece: the Bingham secretary.

The desk and cabinet that started it all. The famous piece of furniture that will go down in history, just not for the right reasons.

Katz is a regular on Antiques Roadshow on PBS and a giant in the antiques world. He and Penny, his wife and business partner, are dealers based in Madison who multiple industry insiders say are “beyond reproach.” 

During his career, which began in the 1980s, Katz helped popularize folk art and Americana and worked to root out fraud in the industry. So it is ironic that he is here today talking with me about his unfortunate role as a victim of one of the most audacious antique frauds in U.S. history. But from the moment he learned the secretary might not be what he and others initially thought it was, Katz has been devoted to transparency and sharing the truth.

“I’ll tell you all the gory details,” he says as we settle into chairs, 6 feet apart in the shadow of the secretary.

Katz has lived in Connecticut since the 1960s but still has a Brooklyn accent that rivals Dr. Anthony Fauci’s. As Katz shares the story of the Civil War Bingham secretary in more detail than he ever has publicly, one hears those Brooklyn rounded vowels, but above all what one hears in his voice is pain.

***

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The Bingham secretary was so skillfully produced that no less than renowned Americana expert Allan Katz (seen here in his antiques gallery in Madison) was fooled by the forgery.

Allan Katz first saw the secretary in 2013 in a series of emails from Harold Gordon, a Massachusetts antiques dealer and restorer specializing in clocks. Gordon asked Katz to review the secretary but not to buy it. “The piece was not for sale; it’s something that he wanted to share with me,” Katz says. “He sees me on Roadshow, and he says, ‘I got this great piece.’ He said, ‘You’ll love seeing it.’ ”

Although Katz had never met Gordon or heard of him, what Gordon told him about the secretary impressed Katz. “I was nothing but complimentary,” Katz recalls. “Harold, this is wonderful. This is fabulous. It really belongs in a museum.”

Eight feet tall and crowned by a working brass clock, the secretary is made of walnut, oak and maple and accented by a wildly ornate series of stars and letters all made from bone, horn and abalone. Below the doors, the words “E Pluribus Unum” (“out of many one”) are written. It was one of many inscriptions marking the piece, adding to its beauty. But the secretary had more than aesthetics; the collection of carved wood and bone told a story of family, war and loss.

The piece was supposedly a memorial for the Bingham family. In August 1862 two brothers, John and Wells Bingham, teenage farmers from East Haddam, enlisted and joined the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Three weeks after leaving their loved ones in Connecticut, and before they had any training, the Bingham brothers and other members of the 16th were thrust into the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day clash in American history.

John, who was only 17, was shot in the chest and was one of many members of the 16th to die that day in Sharpsburg, Maryland. It was left to his 16-year-old brother, Wells, to write home three days after the battle to inform the family. “It is a sad tale which I’m about to tell you. John, poor, poor John is no more,” he wrote. Wells would survive the war but was likely haunted by John’s death. On Aug. 16, 1904, at the age of 58, Wells committed suicide.

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The tragedy of brothers John and Wells Bingham, members of Connecticut’s 16th Regiment during the Civil War, was the real-life backstory to the Bingham secretary’s fictional history.

According to the history Gordon said he received when he acquired the secretary from a member of the Bingham family, many years earlier in 1876, Wells’ friends presented the piece to him on July 4th in Hartford in remembrance of John.

Moved by the beauty of the piece and the history of the brothers, Katz told Gordon he would be interested in buying it if he ever decided to part with it. But he understood why it wasn’t for sale. “If I had it, I wouldn’t want to part with it,” Katz told Gordon.

In the spring of 2014, a full year after Gordon first approached Katz, Gordon got back in touch, telling Katz he was ready to sell. Katz traveled to Gordon’s Templeton, Massachusetts, home to view the secretary.

***

Katz remains impressed with the piece despite everything that has happened. He also remains deeply affected by the story of the Bingham brothers and the terrible toll the Civil War took on them — a story that, despite all the lies and falsehoods surrounding the secretary, is true.

As he opens the doors of the secretary and directs me to various noteworthy elements, the truly massive scope of the forgery begins to become clear. More than a faux antique, it is a well-thought-out magic trick, a mystery box, designed to pull those who look closely further and further down its rabbit hole.

On the inside of one door there is an inscription that was too old and faded for Katz to read initially, but others who examined the piece were able to determine it was the lyrics of a marching song the 16th Connecticut had played while marching into battle.

Mounted inside the doors are three Civil War-era newspaper clippings about Civil War reunions and the battle flags from Antietam. There has long been speculation that some of the 16th Connecticut’s flags may have been cut up and distributed among the men to avoid the flags’ capture later that winter at Fort Williams in Plymouth, North Carolina. In the center of the secretary’s interior encased in glass is a silk and muslin star. The materials suggested it was a piece of a battle flag of the 16th Connecticut.

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The secretary was produced in exacting detail, using authentic materials and methods of craftsmanship.

And there were more pieces to the puzzle waiting to be discovered. A chain with 16 balls around the clock at the top of the secretary represents the 16th Connecticut. This same chain connects to a series of eight bobbins that rest atop the secretary. Katz couldn’t figure out what the bobbins were for, but students in a class he spoke to at Yale helped him come to the conclusion that they were likely a symbol of the eight Bingham brothers. In addition to Wells and John, six other Bingham brothers had fought for the Union.

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Among the additions Harold Gordon made to the fake secretary: a clock crowned by an eagle and the words “The Union Preserved” near the base.

The right door has a music box that plays three different versions of “Yankee Doodle.” Katz opens the door and triggers the box. The device’s intricate gears shift and the music begins to play — faint, mechanical and haunting.

***

Perhaps the most surprising thing about forgeries is just how common they are.

“I have never seen a major institutional collection that didn’t have a load of fakes,” says Robert Cheney, director of the Willard House & Clock Museum in North Grafton, Massachusetts, who has worked with more than 50 museum collections during his career. He adds, “It’s the rule rather than the exception that major collections will have plenty of fakes.”

During the Clinton administration, Cheney says that right outside the Oval Office was a fake antique clock.

Nancy Moses, a former museum director and author of the book Fakes, Forgeries, and Frauds, has made similar observations during her career. “The best museums in the country have had fakes,” she says.

SIDEBAR: Notable antique frauds from recent history

The public’s fascination with these objects is often greater than with legitimate ones. Some of this interest is pure schadenfreude. We love to see the “experts” fooled, to watch an art dealer pay good money for a canvas splashed with different color paints that she thought was a legitimate Jackson Pollock, or to hear about a wine connoisseur unable to differentiate between a commonplace and truly rare vintage. In these moments we seem to hear the child from the old fable yell that the emperor has no clothes and we applaud.

But our fascination with forgeries goes deeper. Skilled fakes, fakes that are so good even the experts can’t tell them apart from the real thing, seem to say something about reality and truth itself, about what we choose to value and why.

“What determines authenticity?” Moses asks in her book. “It is not a scientific absolute; even the most advanced biochemical and technical analyses cannot definitively prove it. It’s not an aesthetic absolute, since two authorities can reach diametrically opposed conclusions about it. It’s not even a physical absolute. When a piece of antique furniture gains the patina of age, or an ancient marble sculpture loses its original polychrome paint, we admire it even more — even though its maker might find it unrecognizable. Some fakes hide in plain view on the walls of even the most august museums and toniest art galleries. Some start out as genuine — then are unmasked as frauds, only to be resurrected as genuine later on.”

The more complex the physical object is, the murkier things get. Historic buildings can retain that title even after renovations replace most of the original materials. Antique furniture pieces frequently have components replaced and updated. There are also new pieces of furniture made to look old by legitimate craftspeople. An object only becomes a fraud, Moses says, when the antiques dealer lies about what he or she is selling. In other words, the difference between a forged and authentic piece is sometimes the story we tell about it.

***

Before buying the Bingham secretary, Katz investigated its story. With the help of Civil War experts, he confirmed various details about the Bingham brothers. Before Katz viewed the piece in person, journalist and Civil War historian John Banks had written about the secretary for his Civil War blog and in a book called Connecticut Yankees at Antietam.

The secretary’s wood was from the 1800s and all its other materials checked out. The desk was yellowed and oxidized in a manner appropriate for its age. Like the gears in the secretary’s music box, everything was perfectly in place. Katz even had pieces of the stars and other adornments from the secretary sent to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s laboratory for analysis.

The secretary came with a letter purportedly from Wells Bingham’s nephew, Edgar Bingham, written in 1972 explaining the story behind the secretary. The note was written on old paper and typed on an old typewriter. It had spelling errors and authentic-seeming details including a shaky signature. The note helped show the piece’s provenance.

Katz bought the piece from Gordon, paying him $89,500 in two installments.

***

“I did about as much homework as I could do on this thing, but Harold Gordon was just, you know, nine steps ahead,” Katz tells me in the warehouse.

In court documents, Gordon’s legal team would argue that Gordon never intended to sell the piece, and that he had made it for his own amusement and only sold it out of desperation when he fell on difficult financial times due to poor health.

Katz doesn’t believe that. He says he was targeted as a buyer from the beginning and that first visit was “part of the bait and hook.” He also believes Gordon wanted the piece to have an audience and that’s why he chose Katz. “He knew from the moment that he contacted me that I was not going to take the secretary and just sell it to some collector and it’d be sitting in some guy’s house somewhere. He knew that I was taking it to the Winter Show,” Katz says.

***

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The Bingham secretary was said to be a late-19th-century piece built in honor of a fallen Civil War soldier.

The annual Winter Show in New York City is billed as the “leading art, antiques, and design fair in America.” In 2015, the Bingham secretary made its debut and was the talk of the event. “I walked by it and it literally stopped me in my tracks because it was such a wonderful thing,” says S. Clayton Pennington, editor of Maine Antique Digest.

People who gathered around Katz’s booth were not just fascinated by the secretary but actually moved by it and the story it helped tell.

The strength of the reaction caused Katz to rethink the power of material culture. You could tell people the story of Bingham brothers and perhaps some would care. But tell them the story and show them the secretary, and something different happened. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this towering tactile object, with its timeworn grooves and fine craftsmanship of a seemingly bygone era was worth even more. The powerful heirloom served as a vessel that carried people to the past. It let them feel the pain of bygone days. Veterans who viewed the piece shared their own stories — others were visibly moved. “We had people in our booth crying,” Katz says.

That’s why Katz felt it belonged in a public institution, particularly a Connecticut institution, and that’s why he took less money than the $375,000 price tag when he sold it to Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford for an undisclosed amount. He wanted the secretary’s story to continue to connect with people. He wanted the Bingham brothers’ memory to live on.

The item soon went on display at the Wadsworth.

***

It wasn’t until three years later that Katz got his first inkling something might be wrong with the secretary. The news came via a phone call from a reporter late one night in early February 2018. The call was from Pennington, the editor of Maine Antique Digest who had seen the Bingham secretary at the Winter Show. He was calling because he had unearthed serious questions about the piece’s authenticity and was researching it for a story. “I got a message from a bunch of dealers, collectors, people who would know who said they didn’t think that thing was right,” Pennington tells me.

Multiple industry insiders have since told me off the record that Harold Gordon had a reputation in the antique clockworkers world, particularly locally in Massachusetts, as someone who regularly came forward with finds that were too good to be true. Several say they suspected the Bingham secretary was a fake.

Pennington had become aware of these rumors and was sent a photo that was circulating among some in the antiques world that showed a plain wooden secretary. This secretary was the same size and distinct shape as the Bingham secretary but it did not have the clock or other striking adornments.

This source, who Pennington says is a respected member of the antiques industry, had contacted the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2016, emailing someone at the institution the photo of the unadorned secretary. Several emails were exchanged but the secretary remained on view, though the museum’s website listing on the piece added the line, “information about this work may change as the result of ongoing research.” (The Wadsworth Atheneum declined to comment for this story.)

The Atheneum never notified Katz about this email exchange or photograph. The first he heard about the photo was when Pennington called him two years later. Katz was shocked and asked Pennington to send the photo.

As soon as he saw it, Katz’s heart sank. The shape of the piece wasn’t the only thing that was familiar. He knew where the photo had been taken: Harold Gordon’s living room. Katz told Pennington this and asked if the photo could have been faked. Pennington didn’t think so. It was late and Katz said he’d call Gordon the next day and try to get to the bottom of this.

Katz hardly slept that night, still reeling from the possibility he’d been sold a fake. He called Gordon the next day and told him about the photo. Gordon responded with a new story. “He said, ‘Al, I haven’t been totally forthright with you,’ ” Katz recalls. “ ‘When I bought the secretary, the Bingham family had removed all the decoration because they didn’t want to live with the memory of the sadness of this family story.’ ”

By this point, Katz no longer believed the secretary was genuine and pushed back on what Gordon was saying. “I said, I’m looking at a photograph and I’m understanding that this is not a high-res image, but I see no holes in this secretary where all these pieces would have been applied,” Katz says. “He said, ‘Oh, the Binghams filled in all the holes because they didn’t want this memory of what had occurred, and they just wanted to use it as a regular piece of furniture.’ ”

Despite his skepticism, Katz agreed that they would talk again later after Gordon had a chance to look in his records for photos or other documentation of what he claimed.

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The Bingham secretary cabinet was a one-of-a-kind Civil War memorial honoring a Connecticut family — or so the experts thought. In reality it was one of the most successful forgeries in American history. 

Meanwhile, Pennington found another, more recent photo of the Bingham secretary. This photo showed the piece as it looked currently with all the embellishments. It was standing in the exact same spot in Gordon’s living room where the unadorned secretary had been photographed. This photo had been taken by Banks, the Civil War writer, for his Civil War blog. Together this photo and the unadorned photo amounted to before-and-after images of the forgery and were a smoking gun.

When Katz called Gordon back, the clock restorer admitted the secretary was a fake. He’d later admit the same to others. 

“I did it. I made it. I did the provenance, the whole bit,” he told Pennington for the story in Maine Antique Digest that revealed to the world the secretary was a fake. Gordon said he came up with the idea after having dealings with the Bingham family. “I knew Edgar Bingham since the ’70s. I did the appraisal on his estate, and I bought some things from his sisters. In it was some Bingham material, and I traced that back … that’s the black magic that started it all.”

Gordon said he had the unadorned cabinet in his home and began to tinker with it over many months, adding a piece here and then another there. He studied Latin for some of the inscriptions and used old materials or mimicked the aging process.

Gordon said he felt particularly bad about what he had done to Katz. “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,” he says.

Katz immediately refunded the Wadsworth and took the piece back.

The news rocked the antiques world, and The New York Times and other national publications covered it. While the legacy of the fake is still being determined, no one doubts it will be remembered for a long time. “It’s one of the greatest folk art fakes of all time,” Pennington says. “It fooled Allan Katz, whose knowledge of American folk art is vast. It fooled the vetting committee at the Winter Show. It fooled the committee that recommended the Wadsworth buy it. It fooled everybody.”

But Pennington remains impressed by Katz’s actions and says the dealer’s response will be part of the legacy of the piece. “Allan really did the right thing as a dealer,” Pennington says. “He ended up taking a major loss here. The instant he heard it might not be right, he got on the case to try and figure it out with me. And then when it was proven not right, he instantly refunded the money to the Wadsworth. He ended up eating the whole thing. He is a hero in this story, and an example of the ethics of a good dealer.”

After news of the fraud broke, the FBI began investigating the case. The conclusion of the federal case was delayed by Gordon’s declining health and by the coronavirus, but in September, Gordon was charged with fraud and sentenced in federal court to five years probation. He was not given any jail time, but the judge admonished Gordon and told him if it was not for the coronavirus he would have given him jail time.

The case was closed, but there were still unanswered questions about the secretary.

***

In the late 1960s a woodcarver named Armand LaMontagne and a friend visited the Wadsworth Atheneum. They wore work clothes and boots and were loudly criticizing some of the finishing jobs on the pieces on display at the museum. A member of the staff overheard them and asked them to leave. LaMontagne was angry and decided to show the world of museum curators that modern craftsmen and artists could still create great pieces.

In the 1600s, shortly after the Pilgrims arrived, a local chair maker built a chair for Mayflower passenger William Brewster. The artisan made another chair after Brewster’s death, and there have long been rumors in antiques collectors’ circles that a third chair existed.

LaMontagne made a nearly flawless modern version of these Brewster chairs, then left it with a friend in New England who sometimes sold antiques to dealers. The friend left it sitting where dealers would see it and gave it away to one who expressed interest in it. From there it was sold from dealer to dealer for more and more money, eventually ending up in the possession of the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, which purchased it in 1970.

When LaMontagne announced he had made the chair, the curators at the Ford Museum only believed him after X-raying the chair and finding screw holes that LaMontagne had deliberately made using a modern drill bit.

The Bingham secretary is frequently hailed as one of the most successful forgeries since that famous chair. Now some wonder if the prominence of the forgery and the Wadsworth Atheneum aren’t the only similarities between these two fakes. A rumor has emerged that the person who first floated the photo of the unadorned secretary to the antiques community is Harold Gordon himself. The theory is that he wanted other people to know what he did. Attempts to reach Gordon through his legal team for this story were unsuccessful, but in past interviews he has maintained that money, not notoriety, was his motivation. “I was never at a point where I was doing it to show off, to show how great I was,” Gordon told The New York Times in 2018 shortly after news of the forgery broke. “It simply became a creative process.”

But he also displayed pride in the piece. “That thing should be in a museum,” he told The Times.

Katz thinks it’s possible Gordon wanted others to know he had created a piece capable of fooling the experts. He notes that Gordon did not serve any jail time and could be thinking, “I got famous. It’s going down as one of the great fakes of all time. I’m not going to jail. And this is my legacy.”

Katz adds that when Gordon confessed to Penny and him, he said, “ ‘I picked you.’ He didn’t want to sell it into some dark hole where it would never be seen again. He’s going down as one of the great fakers of all time and without this his life would have passed sadly unnoticed.”

Others who know Gordon find that less probable. Cheney, who has known Gordon from antique clock events for many years, says, “I think Harold’s a little smarter than that. That’s only asking for a lawsuit, in my opinion.” 

Though fooling the experts was a motivating factor in the Brewster chair forgery, Cheney says the circumstances here are different. LaMontagne never profited from his forgery or told anyone it was legit. Even so, Cheney is surprised by the existence of those before-and-after photos. “That really shocked me,” he says. “Usually people who are in that sort of business, they don’t generally show before-and-after pictures. That was fairly careless.”

But perhaps the question of who circulated the photo is less important than what the value of the Bingham secretary is today. As part of the trial, the secretary was appraised by an expert hired by the government and one hired by Gordon’s defense team. The defense’s appraiser placed the value at $35,000 based on its craftsmanship alone. The defense conceded that the piece’s notoriety as a forgery should not be included in the estimate, but if included, their appraiser upped the value of the piece to $75,000. The government appraiser placed its value at $500. Ultimately the judge set its value at $2,500.

Regardless of the legal value of the piece, there is precedent for forgeries gaining value because they are fakes. After a former long-haul trucker named Teri Horton purchased a colorful abstract painting for $5 at a thrift shop, she became convinced it was an authentic Jackson Pollock. Some experts backed her claim, while others vehemently denied it. She turned down offers of as much as $9 million for the painting, convinced it was worth $50 million. After she died last year, her son told a reporter he believes that, even if it’s not an authentic Pollock, it is worth $10 million to $15 million because of how famous his mother’s story has become.

Rather than hide the fake Brewster chair it purchased, the Ford Museum embraced the story, making a new exhibit around the chair’s forgery. Cheney applauds the Ford Museum’s tactic and says the Wadsworth Atheneum should have kept the Bingham secretary. “It would generate a hell of a lot more attention as an object because of the story attached with it then it would really as a Civil War object that a handful of people might want to come to town and take a look at.”

Katz knows that despite the pain the Bingham secretary has caused him personally there is still value and interest in the piece. During our meeting at the warehouse, he tells me he intends to donate it to a museum where it can continue to fascinate and perhaps inspire people, though in a different way than he originally intended when he talked about how it belonged in an institution. Two months later he calls and tells me he and Penny have donated the piece to the Chipstone Foundation, a major Wisconsin-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. He says the staff there is researching the Bingham family and he expects they will do a “great job of resurrecting and promoting the story of that great, brave, patriotic Connecticut family.”

In the end, the Bingham secretary will be a museum piece again and the forged piece will help tell a real story. My guess is it will be a popular one, and it’s hard not to smile at that. After all, what gives an item value? Authenticity? Age? The skill with which it is crafted? Or is it its story? The Bingham secretary may fail in terms of authenticity, but it is made with great skill, and few pieces of furniture have a better story to tell — even if part of that story is a lie.

This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.