Over the years, many dealers have reported that the likelihood of inadvertently purchasing stolen items seems to be highest during the spring equinox, as outdoor shows and markets bloom across the country. While particulars regarding the reasoning behind the seasonality of such thefts remains vague at best, a recent case of missing Civil War items in Missouri this past March, clearly highlights why dealers and collectors might want to consider doing as much due diligence as possible before making any substantial first-quarter purchases.
The case in question, involved a Sedalia county museum curator from Missouri, who made local headlines when his report to authorities of several missing Civil War items from the museum he worked at, caught the attention of the media. Charles Wise, who co-curates the museum's displays, stated to police that a musket rifle, a sword, a surgical kit, and a brass-barrel Blunderbuss firearm, were all missing from the premises. In his report to police, Wise placed the value of the stolen items at about five to ten thousand dollars.
While waiting for authorities to investigate the theft, Wise decided to do some online sleuthing of his own, and managed to find a few of the items on a Tennessee Civil War website owned by a Mr. Rafael Eledge. After some discussion with Mr. Eledge regarding the pieces, Wise was able to ascertain that a man who had worked previously for the museum as a volunteer, had been responsible for the theft, as he had signed a standardized waiver form when selling the items to Eledge, attesting to the fact that none of the goods were stolen.
In the end, Eledge worked with authorities in helping return the artifacts to the museum, though a few items remained unrecovered, as they were sold for cash with no traceable records. It was also through Mr. Eledge's assistance that the police were able to catch the thief, and charge him for the crime, based on the signed waiver. However, for his efforts in assisting authorities, Mr. Eledge ended up not only being out of pocket for the purchase expense and sale price of the items - through no fault of his own - but additionally had to suffer the indignity of the media associating him with a criminal act related to his business. To compound the issue and make matters worse, local police went on camera, releasing a public statement expressing their concern for Eledge getting a bad reputation for dealing in "stolen goods" - which, while a seemingly beneficial sentiment at first glance, is probably not the kind of publicity that's going to help Mr. Eledge regain his business reputation in the long run. When the damage was finally tallied, it was Eledge who ended up suffering the highest fiscal loss of any of the parties involved, even though he did absolutely nothing wrong.
While the aforementioned series of events is unfortunate, the takeaway from this tale is that the situation could have been much worse for Mr. Eledge had he not insisted on the waiver from being signed. For the rest of us in the industry, this story might harken back to Murphy's Law of "...no good deed goes unpunished." Regardless of one's take on the matter, it's certainly a cautionary tale that dealers and collectors should probably keep front-and-center this spring while out buying and picking - along with a fully stocked waiver book!
- AIA Staff Writer's
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