Sunday, May 12, 2013

Confederate or Not?

I often peruse online auctions for swords.  Online auctions can be minefields for the collector.  No novice should purchase any sword or gun through an online auction without first doing some homework.

At any given time, you can find several swords up for auction described by the seller as Confederate made or used.   How can you be sure that he sword is really of Confederate manufacture or use.    I can't count the number of times that I have seen a sword up for auction, no matter it's age, described as Civil War.   Some sellers believe, or at least represent, that any edged weapon not marked US must be Confederate.  Why?  Well, simply stated Confederate weapons are worth more and if some unknowing buyer believes it, the $200 sword will fetch a much higher price.  Be careful.  Be very careful.

Here are a few beginners tips for CS edged weapons:

1)   Many CS made weapons are not as finely finished as those made in the US or Europe.  However, they weren't all made by blacksmiths either.   Some CS swords are very fine.  You can generally tell a CS manufactured sword by some common characteristics. Many CS swords have unstopped fullers (the blade groove does not have a defined termination point at the hilt), some faults (lines, dips, chips or cracks) in the blade or brass, reddish brass from a high copper content in the smelting and have substandard materials for grips (painted canvas instead of leather for grip cover; single strand brass, iron or copper wire for grip binding).  The hilt below demonstrates my point.  It is the hilt of a CS cavalry sabre made by Haimon Bros. of Columbus, Georgia.  Note the painted canvas wrap, iron wire and reddish hue to the brass.  

This sword was in my collection.   The scabbard was very crude with an ugly weld seam up the back. Not every CS sword will have exactly the same characteristics.  Identification and verification is a very fluid business.

2)   CS swords are typically not armory marked or dated.  Common reproductions bear the marking "Atlanta Arsenal, 1862."   I wouldn't touch any sword presented as CS that bears these markings.

3)  Confederates did use swords imported from Europe.  French pattern 1821 infantry officer swords (upon which the US model 1850 foot sword is based) were carried.  The British pattern 1853 cavalry sword was imported by and CS governments.  Any sword not of CS manufacture that is purported to be CS needs to have clear and acceptable  provenance to be deemed as such. Provenance is the proof that what is claimed is really true.  Documentation from a reputable source, a period photograph, an identifiable marking such as initials or a name etched or hand carved in the metal or wood is the type of  provenance that is needed.  Just because it is "of the type carried by CS officers or enlisted men" does not provenance make.   Beware also of false provenance.  Dishonest people will fake markings and  documents to create provenance.  There is also the false word of mouth provenance.  "I bought this sword from a street vender in New Orleans who said that it came from the family of an officer of the Wheat's Lousiana Tiger Zouaves who was captured at Vicksburg."   Yeah, right.    Is it also marked "Atlanta Arsenal, 1862"?    FYI, to my knowledge, Wheat's Tiger Zouaves were not at Vicksburg.   It is also a quantum leap of logic to assume that a French made sword was carried by a Louisiana officer simply because of common ancestry.  Look at the spine of French swords.  Typically the model,  arsenal and date of manufacture are there.  I've seen more that one French made "Civil War" sword bearing a post 1865 date of manufacture.  Word of mouth provenance starts either by intent so as to increase value (aka a little thing called fraud) or innocently enough do to a lack of knowledge.  It is, in my opinion, very dangerous in the collecting world, because the more times the false assertion is passed from owner to owner the more credence that it receives.   To borrow from Baboo, the unfortunate Pakistani restauranteur on Seinfeld, "word of mouth provenance, you very, very bad man!"

5) While I'm on my rant, let's talk about barn and attic finds.  Yes, I'm sure that some Civil War swords have been found in attics and barns.  That's where we all put the junk that we don't need anymore, but are too lazy to throw away. But this many attic and barn find swords is a bit ridiculous. Perhaps a law was passed in 1866 requiring all swords carried home by veterans to be put in attics and barns.  Who brought these swords home anyway?  Officers? Okay, I can see that. Enlisted men?  For what purpose would a mustered out enlisted man need with a 3 foot long cavalry sword?  Plow blade?  Very Biblical, but not very practical. I'm sure that some sentimental soldiers took their blades home, but I simply don't believe that the vast majority looked back on their years of service with that much fondness or sentimentality.   With the attic or barn find, ask "who put it there, when and for what purpose."  When was it found and how.  That barn or attic better be someplace where nobody has ventured in a long time.

6) Along the same lines, just because a sword is found in a Southern state does not make it Confederate.   I love an auction for an 1860 US cavalry sabre purchased by the seller from a previous owner in Kentucky decreed to be a CS captured and used US sword.  Based upon what?  The fact that it came from Kentucky. First of all, and I'll probably offend someone here, but I just don't consider Kentucky to be a Confederate state -  because it wasn't.  It was a border state with allegiance to both North and South. There are a myriad of reasons why that sword was found in Kentucky. First of all,  relic dealing is an online business and items reach buyers all over country and the world.  Maybe the previous owner bought it online or at a show.  Maybe the sword is original to the state.  It could be surplus from a US regiment.  Perhaps it is surplus US army stock sold or given to the state for keeping in its armory.  Perhaps it was issued to a Union Kentuckian who carried it in the war and brought it home--easy now, see above. Perhaps a Confederate Kentuckian captured and used it.   Hey, I've had dozens of British swords in Mississippi, that doesn't make any of them Confederate.  Provenance makes the difference.  

7) If its too good to be true, then you have been taken.  Even with the decline of sword values due to the recession, CS swords have still commanded higher than US sword prices.  Swords ID'd to a known CS manufacturer, either by marking or characteristics, still obtain prices in the thousands.   I'm not saying that it is impossible to stumble upon a great deal.  However, for the most part, an online auction does not result in a less than market value sale price.  There are simply too many collectors in the know who purchase online.  if everyone else isn't bidding, then neither should you.

5) Buy reference books and visit reputable dealer websites.  Get a keen eye for the subtle features.  Learn what it should look like and what it should cost.

Now, go online and see how many questionable CS swords offered at auction that you can find. Its fun.