Tippecanoe and a sword caper, too

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Tippecanoe and a sword caper, too
The sword and its scabbard were seized by police in Connecticut last month just minutes before they were to go up for auction.

by Liam Stack

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- President William Henry Harrison died in 1841 after just 31 days in the White House. But the sword he carried at the Battle of Tippecanoe is caught up in one last war.

The sword and its scabbard were seized by police in Connecticut last month just minutes before they were to go up for auction, where organizers said they were expected to fetch at least $50,000.

A sword said to have belonged to the president was stolen from the Cincinnati Historical Society in 1979, officials said. There was no sign of it for 40 years until an eagle-eyed Harrison fan in Ohio last month stumbled upon an auction website advertising the sale — the next day — of a “silver-hilt smallsword” once wielded by the president.

He alerted other amateur historians, and together they got law enforcement officials in two states to swiftly intervene, seizing the sword Oct. 19, the day it was to have been sold.

“We just never thought it was ever going to happen, but it did,” said Tom Ratterman, a board member of the ​Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation, which runs a museum in Cleves, Ohio, dedicated to Harrison and his family. That includes John Cleves Symmes, a colonel in the Revolutionary War and a leader in the American settlement of Ohio who was the sword’s first owner.

But all is not fair in love and war memorabilia.

The sword’s last owner, James Kochan, disputes that it is stolen property. He — and Christie’s, the auction house in New York where he bought it in 2015 — said there appeared to be differences between his sword and the one stolen in 1979.

Kochan believes his sword to be the president’s blade and speculated that the stolen one might have been a copy, a theory at which Ratterman balked.

“I have never heard that from anybody except him,” Ratterman said. “Why would there be two swords? Nobody has ever said that.”

That may be a question for law enforcement. The sword is currently in the possession of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio, which is investigating its disappearance, its spokesman, David Daugherty, said.

The sword was about to be sold at a benefit for the Mars and Neptune Trust, an organization devoted to military history that Kochan founded, when police arrived.

Kochan said he bought the sword for $7,500 in 2015 at Christie’s from the estate of Eric Martin Wunsch, a prominent collector of American antiques who died in 2013. He said he was shocked to get a call on the morning of the benefit claiming it had been stolen.

“I said, ‘Slow down, who are you?’ and he said, ‘I’m Tom Ratterman and I’m with the Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation in Cleves, Ohio,’” Kochan recounted. “I said: ‘I don’t mean to insult you, but I have never heard of you. Where is Cleves, Ohio?’”

Kochan said officers from the Windsor Police Department in Connecticut arrived after the auction began Oct. 19 and pressured him into giving them the sword without a warrant or a court order. The department did not respond to a message seeking comment.

“They did the usual kind of police in-your-face thing,” Kochan said. “I thought, ‘I am not leaving the first fundraising benefit for the trust in handcuffs,’ so I said, ‘OK, we will turn it over.’”

In an interview, he listed the differences between his sword and the stolen one. Court documents describe the stolen sword as having a 36- to 42-inch blade with a center blood groove and six names engraved on its hilt, including Harrison’s.

But that does not match the description of Kochan’s sword written in the catalog for his Oct. 19 auction or on the Christie’s website in 2015.

Both describe the sword as a 34 1/2-inch blade with no blood groove and five names on its hilt. The president’s name is not among them: On Kochan’s sword, the words “Genl W H Harrison / 1812” are written on its sheath.

“I am just doing more research; I don’t like litigation,” Kochan said. “If they’re one and the same, that is great, but if they are different swords, then we need to get them into the hands of their rightful owners.”

Christie’s, which did not record the sword in 2015 as having belonged to Harrison, echoed Kochan’s concerns and said in a statement that it had not received “any official inquiry regarding this item.”

“There are differences in key descriptions that would indicate these may be two different items,” it said. “Moreover, Christie’s would not sell anything that we know or have reason to believe has been stolen or may have been stolen.”

Historians say Harrison carried the sword at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and the Battle of the Thames in 1813, where the Shawnee leader Tecumseh was killed. His war exploits earned him the nickname “Old Tippecanoe,” which became a campaign slogan when he ran for president in 1840 with his running mate John Tyler: “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.”

If it is indeed the stolen sword, its recovery after 40 years raises the question of who is entitled to have it now.

A court order issued Oct. 22 directed the sheriff to return the sword to the probate court so it can determine how to “preserve and maintain” it “for the benefit of the residents of Hamilton County.”

Representatives for the Cincinnati Historical Society, which is now part of the Cincinnati Museum Center, said they were unaware the sword might have been found until a journalist asked them for comment last week.

Court records show the stolen sword was donated to Hamilton County in 1921 by William Whipple Symmes, a great-great-great nephew of Symmes. It hung in probate court before it was given to the historical society to be displayed “for and on behalf of” the county, according to court documents from 1974.

But by 1979 it was gone, and the historical society decided to keep quiet, according to a 1993 letter from its former director, Gale E. Peterson, to a county court judge, Wayne F. Wilke. (The judge told him the court retained “permanent ownership” of the sword.)

“The Cincinnati Police advised us not to go public with the theft,” Peterson wrote. “It was their belief that the sword might be recovered during an attempt to sell the item, but it would only work if there was no publicity about the theft.”

The society stuck to that strategy for 14 years. But it unraveled when the Village of Cleves asked to use the sword in 1993 for its 175th anniversary celebration. Even then, the theft seemed to be an open secret: When the event organizer, Terry B. Meyers, wrote to request the sword, he described it as an object “which I understand has been stolen.”

“First, they avoided the situation and then finally they came out that they had lost it,” Ratterman said of the museum. “I think in the early ’90s there was an effort to find the sword.”

But the trail went cold. And then, after 40 years, another Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation board member found a sword online, Ratterman said. It was the Rev. David Sunberg, a Catholic priest browsing the internet for Harrison memorabilia.

“We’ve been buying art for the museum so we’d been on the internet, eBay and other places,” Ratterman said. “When you do a search for William Henry Harrison, you know, things come up.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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