U. sues Newport News over stolen sword
Col. Rush Hawkins had two of his swords stolen from Brown in the 1970s.
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.”
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