University News

U. sues Newport News over stolen sword

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In pursuit of a priceless relic that has been missing for more than 30 years, the University is suing the city of Newport News, Va. and noted Civil War collectors Donald and Toni Tharpe for the return of a Tiffany and Company silver presentation sword and ornamental scabbard.

The ceremonial sword, presented to Col. Rush Hawkins at the end of the Civil War, is referred to in the suit as a “unique and very valuable artifact” that is part of the Annmary Brown Memorial collection. The sword has been missing from the University since it was stolen in the mid-1970s.

The suit, which was filed Jan. 6 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, asks for the University to be immediately recognized as the true owner of the sword and its accompanying scabbard. According to the suit, Brown is still in possession of the sword’s matching Tiffany presentation box.

Earlier in 2010, the University was notified by an unnamed source that the sword had been loaned by its current owners to the Lee Hall Mansion — a museum run by the city of Newport News.

According to the suit, the blade was returned to the Tharpes Dec. 7. The defendants have since transferred the sword to Day and Meyer, a New York-based warehouse for art. Because the defendants moved the sword so quickly, U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar ordered a 60-day extension to the restraining order that prevents the Tharpes from selling or transferring the artifact.

A status conference — a pre-trial meeting between the judge and lawyers from both sides — has been set for Feb. 10, according to Beverly Ledbetter, vice president and general counsel. Details of the University’s past attempts to locate the sword will not be disclosed until the next court date, Ledbetter said. At that point, Newport News’ status as a defendant in the case will also be formally discussed.

Going to court over swords is not a matter in which the University is lacking experience. In 1993, Brown sued the estate of John Donelan Jr. for the return of another of Hawkins’ presentation swords — also believed to have been stolen in the mid-1970s — and won on the premise that Donelan was not a “good value purchaser” of the relic.

Peter Harrington, the present-day curator of the Brown military collection at the John Hay Library, said he has never been directly responsible for the Hawkins collections nor has he seen either of the swords.  An Annmary Brown Memorial curator watched over the relics until the University decided to discontinue the position in recent years.   

The much-disputed blade of the ongoing lawsuit is currently valued at more than $750,000 and was wrought from “fine steel,” according to an archival document in the Hay. It was presented to Hawkins by New York citizens in May 1863 “for his gallantry and devotion to his country.”

The sword itself features fine ornamental details, including a serpent entwined with a laurel wreath and a fierce eagle at the termination of the grip. Hawkins’ initials are inscribed on the blade in raised letters. According to a note in the memorial, swords of such design were generally not presented to colonels, but the citizens felt Hawkins had “performed the duties of a brigadier general.”  


A mysterious disappearance

According to archival documents in the Hay referencing the presentation sword, the Annmary Brown Memorial was closed for renovations and “budgetary matters” in the mid-1970s and was entirely inaccessible to the public from 1975 to 1977. It was during this period that the alleged theft of the swords is believed to have taken place.  

As stated in a 1993 affidavit, John Stanley — the administrative assistant to the Hay librarian in the 1970s — made the discovery of several missing items as he was familiarizing himself with the collection. While preparing items for viewing, he noted that a number of artifacts — including the two ceremonial Tiffany swords — were no longer present.

Samuel Hough, the curator of the memorial at the time of the discovery, reported an inventory of the missing items in an April 20, 1977 letter to then-Provost Merton Stoltz MA’36. The strongly-worded correspondence also voiced displeasure with the University’s handling of the memorial.  

“Security measures and respect for the objects of the memorial have been inadequate,” Hough wrote.  

At the time of the 1993 lawsuit, the University was wary about discussing security measures. When questioned in an interrogatory about the room in which the stolen items were kept, the University objected to the question as “impermissibly vague.”

The answers provided to the interrogatory reveal that at the time of the theft, the swords and other missing items were located in a basement room that required “passage through three sets of locked doors.”

The only ones with access to the room holding the swords were the curator, the senior librarian and security and maintenance personnel. The blades were not included in any public display between 1972, when they were last observed, and the time they were discovered to be missing in 1977, according to interrogatory answers from the 1993 lawsuit.

As of 2011, “the University has enhanced its security procedures but prefers not to disclose specifics at this time,” Sarah Kidwell, director of news and communications, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

If the sword should be returned to Brown’s care, she wrote, the University plans to store the blade with the rest of the Hawkins collection. Exactly what this will mean for the future of the sword was not clarified. While some pieces of the collection are on display in glass boxes scattered throughout the memorial, others are unavailable to the viewing public.

Currently, Harrington said, the matching presentation box and the other ceremonial sword that was regained in 1993 are stored in the vault located in the Hay.  


An enduring expression

Built from 1903 to 1907 by Rhode Island architect Norman Isham 1886 MA1890, the memorial that once held the swords is Hawkins’ personal remembrance of his wife Annmary, who died of pneumonia in 1903. The words that adorn the entrance to the rooms describe it as “an enduring expression of his love and appreciation of her noble and beautiful character.”

In 1948, the memorial and all of its possessions were transferred to the University with the understanding that nothing was to be removed from or added to its contents. Failure to comply with those terms “shall cause said deed to become null and voice and the estate forfeited,” according to a 1975 guide to the Annmary Brown Memorial.  

Although only a note marks where the two ceremonial presentation swords once rested for public viewing in the memorial, other items from the Hawkins collection remain on full display. A shredded fragment of a flag, a weathered-looking drum and a tin box of letters from Hawkins’ wife serve as reminders of the colonel’s active role in the Civil War.

Military life aside, Hawkins’ passionate patronage of the arts is evident in the great number of paintings, older swords and china figurines composing the collection.

His vast collection of over 500 incubulum, books printed in Europe before 1501, was moved to the Hay in 1990.

In a July 1907 letter to the community printed in the Providence Journal, Hawkins announced the memorial’s official opening. In return for sharing his treasures in the hopes that “they may be of use to those who love the beautiful,” he voiced a plea that the citizens of Providence “care for it and safely guard it.”  

In the final room of the memorial, Hawkins — killed by an automobile on Fifth Avenue in 1920 — and his wife are entombed side-by-side in a room of marble.  

Calvin Watts, recently retired from a 37-year career with the Department of Public Safety, is the l
one Friday afternoon guard responsible for the immense oil paintings and tattered Civil War relics that line the jewel-toned walls of the memorial. Though the gray building is centrally located next to Health Services and across from Keeney Quadrangle, Watts admitted it is rare for students or faculty to frequent the building.  

“The other day I had two alumni come in here,” he said. “Not once, in four years, had they been inside this building. The doors are closed so the students just walk by.”  

When asked about his favorite items among the treasures, Watts gestured grandly to the full-wall display of — what else? ­— swords.

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