A lawsuit filed by the University in early 2011 for the 1970s theft of a Tiffany & Co. silver presentation sword from the Annmary Brown Memorial Collection has faced a number of delays. Donald and Toni Tharpe, the couple accused of illegally possessing the missing sword, changed defense attorneys and requested several continuances over the past year, postponing the trial to February 2013. The trial was originally scheduled for September 2011.
The sword in question was presented to Colonel Rush Hawkins at the end of the Civil War by New York citizens in recognition of his war feats, including the formation of the 9th New York City Volunteers regiment that served in the Union Army. Hawkins donated the sword to the collection in 1907. The sword was noted to have vanished from the collection in the mid-1970s, before turning up on display at the municipal Lee Hall Mansion in Newport News, Va. in December 2010 on loan from the Tharpes' personal collection.
The University filed a lawsuit in January 2011 against Newport News as a legal tactic to uncover the names of the persons who loaned the sword to the museum. Once the names were revealed, the city was dismissed from the case.
The University subsequently sued the Tharpes, noted Civil War collectors, in the U.S. District for the Eastern District of Virginia, claiming true ownership of the sword and its accompanying scabbard. The University still has the sword's matching presentation box, which is stored in the John Hay Library.
Until the trial date, the $750,000-valued blade rests in a high-security vault with other art and artifacts in New York City. Meanwhile, the original counsel for the defendants has withdrawn, and a new counsel has been requested.
Alan Silber, the Tharpes' former attorney, left counsel in October 2012 due to "a communication breakdown between him and his clients," according to a memorandum order from the court. He said he is not willing to provide comment beyond what is said in public records. David Fudala, a civil lawyer based in Fairfax, Va., is the Tharpes' new and current attorney.
"The change in defense attorneys hasn't affected Brown's legal strategy at all," said Beverly Ledbetter, the University vice president and general counsel. "Our legal strategy is simple: We own it; it was stolen; we want it back."
The Tharpes claim they acquired the sword in good faith and that the University is too late in recognizing ownership of the sword. But Ledbetter said the defendants' claim is not legitimate, especially because they have been changing their legal argument for months. The University, on the other hand, has remained true to its word, she said.
Colonel Hawkins' sword is unique - not only is it one of the only swords commissioned by a regiment, but it is also one of the few made by Tiffany & Co. Since it was personally gifted to the Annmary Brown family collection, the sword also plays an important role in the University's history.
"We intend to win the case," Ledbetter said. "The University does not want to give away a part of its history nor set a precedent of doing so."
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Beverly Ledbetter, the University vice president and general counsel, as saying of a lawsuit filed by the University in early 2011 for the theft of a Tiffany & Co. silver presentation sword, "Our legal strategy is simple - we own it, they stole it and we want it back." In fact, Ledbetter said, "Our legal strategy is simple: We own it; it was stolen; we want it back." The article also refers to Donald and Toni Tharpe as "the couple accused of stealing the missing sword." In fact, what is in dispute is the couple's claim to ownership of the sword, not the sword's theft. The Herald regrets the errors.