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The E-Sylum: Volume 21, Number 4, January 27, 2019, Article 15

KLEEBERG ON TED BUTTREY VS. JOHN FORD

At my request John Kleeberg submitted his summary of Ted Buttrey's tussle with John J. Ford, Jr. over the false western gold bars. Thank you! -Editor

You asked me to share my thoughts about Buttrey's bout with Ford. Of course, one should realize that Ted Buttrey made a large number of contributions in all sorts of diverse areas of scholarship. He began as a collector of Mexican coins, and contributed much on that; his scholarship was chiefly about ancient Rome. He determined the date of the introduction of the Roman denarius on the basis of the Morgantina excavations; he published excavation reports from Morgantina and Sardis; he was working on the denarii of Crepusius (the Crepusius series has numbered dies); he worked on the coinage of Pescennius Niger; his great showpiece was a lengthy lecture about Mark Antony, which lasted at least two hours - I sat through it twice and dearly wish it had been videotaped; the last two lectures I heard from Ted were on Caesar and Vespasian; he was working on a book on Sophocles; he got in a fierce debate about how many coins can be struck from a pair of dies; he re-worked a volume of RIC with Ian Carradice; he published several editions of a guide of Mexican coins with Clyde Hubbard; he was a leading advocate of the importance of collecting and studying coin auction catalogs and fixed price lists, and established for that purpose a vast trove of these at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge - and on and on.

Ted Buttrey performed an enormous service for the study of American numismatics by taking on John Ford; it was a lonely campaign that put him to much unnecessary expense, most notably when Ford filed a defamation suit against him. Ted was critical of Eric Newman drawing in his horns in the campaign; Ted felt that Eric had lost his nerve in the midst of the fight over the USAOG 1853 prooflike $20s.

When Ted was told he had won the Huntington Medal of the ANS for 1996, he said he would only accept if he was allowed to deliver a talk about Ford's False Western Gold Bars as his Huntington Lecture - and Bill Metcalf agreed to that. That lecture restarted the debate, which had been put on ice since the mid 1970s, and eventually destroyed the reputation of John Ford, Paul Franklin, and the Massapequa forgeries.

There are various strategies to attack the Massapequa forgeries, and Ted took the approach that I would call "The Magic Bullet" - he looked for one particular flaw that would bring down the entire edifice. He found it in the skewed pattern of finds - for decades very few gold bars had surfaced, and then, in the 1950s, boom, suddenly huge numbers surfaced and they all could be traced back to John Ford. As Buttrey commented, "Everybody was on the lookout for these bars yet only Ford found them - he must be the luckiest guy in the world."

I took a different approach, which I call "Death by a Thousand Cuts." I looked for many different criteria that could be used to demonstrate that the Massapequa objects were fakes - patterns in the serial numbers, weights, inconsistencies in the weights and finenesses (as in the Kohler bar where Franklin got his math wrong), or incorrectly dated pieces with or without the Internal Revenue tax stamp. It was a stroke of luck that Ford and Franklin never quite figured out the period that the Internal Revenue tax was imposed, so they produced many bars with bad dates. I eventually figured out the period (1864-68) - I was attending NYU law school at the time, hanging out in the law library, and I told myself that as a lawyer in training I should surely be able to find the statute that imposed the tax and the statute that repealed it. And I did.

It was also fortunate that the gold bars from the S.S. Central America came on the market and were extensively published by both Sotheby's and Christie's, so we had real bars to compare with the questionable ones - and the questionable ones failed test after test. I published a series of studies - one in the American Journal of Numismatics condemning the Kohler bar with the wonky math, another in Coin World about how the weird fineness runs with consecutive serial numbers, as contrasted to the Central America bars - and the stuff added up. So it was "Death by a Thousand Cuts" or, to mix my metaphors, "A Cask of Amontillado" as I shoved brick after brick into the wall that sealed off Ford, Franklin, and the Massapequa forgeries.

Finally, when Ford died, I did not want the conversation dominated by the praises that all too often are said about the deceased, so I wrote an obituary to change the theme and the conversation. And the obituary did accomplish its purpose - it got talked about. In the obituary I described how Ford blamed all inimical actions on Eric Newman, whom Ford regarded as a spider who sat in the center of a web in St. Louis, spinning plots against Ford. When the obituary appeared I received a note from St. Louis, reading in these words, more or less: "To: JMK; From: Spider; Re: Obit; Wow."

Some people have said to me that the obituary too extreme and over the top. One of the people who said that, was of all people, Ted Buttrey! In light of Ted Buttrey's criticism I have re-read my obituary of John Ford and considered if it should be toned down, but I decided against it - I really couldn't see where I could tone it down - it was my honest opinion, and if I toned it down it wouldn't accurately reproduce the picture as I saw it.

This is the story of the Mexican gold bars, more or less as Ted told it to me, including the sound effects:

When Ted Buttrey was a young curator at Yale, he received, out of the blue, a call from a New York City coin dealer who said that he had just acquired some very interesting Mexican gold bars, and since Ted was an expert on Mexican coinage would he look at them? Well Ted was a Republican guy, not a Colonial guy, but he still knew a fair bit about Colonial coins too. So in due time the gold bars arrive. Ted then asks around. He asks Henry Gruenthal, who said, "Well, I am not entirely sure but there is something about those Mexican bars that is not quite KOOOSHER!" (spoken in a German accent with a falsetto). He asked Henry Christensen who said, "Look Ted, I know you are a Republican guy, not a Colonial guy, but even a Republican guy should know that the imperial crown on the reverse die only appears in 1754 or later, and the tip of the cross is between the H and I in the legend only on coins dated 1761 or later, so there is no way these bars can date from 1744 and 1746."

Well Ted was young and naive, but he was smart enough to know that if he wrote a letter on Yale University notepaper expressing even the mildest sort of interest, the coin dealer (who was John J. Ford, Jr.) would say, "Look, Yale University is interested in these pieces" and use that to hype the bars- so he stayed shtum and eventually Ford called, and Ted said, "Look, I can't make anything out of these things," and Ford said, "Yeah, okay, ship them back." So Ted shipped them back.

Then the 1973 International Numismatic Congress was approaching, which would be held in New York and Washington, and Ted was looking around for a nice American topic, and he thought, why don't I sit down and research the Mexican gold bars? So he asked Ford if Ford could show him the pieces in his collection, and Ford took him to dinner. At dinner Ford told him the cock-and-bull story about the bars being found in a shipwreck off the coast of Florida, and Ted nodded and said, "Hmmm, very interesting." Ford then drove Ted to the house - when they arrived there was a ferocious watch dog that pounced at the car [RROOAAR!!].

Ford set Ted up at a table with a lamp and brought out the bars, and Ted noticed something important - there was a die break in the coin die that was used to mark the gold bars. So it was easy to show that all the gold bars were die linked, and because of the 1754/1761 problem they all could be condemned. Meanwhile Ford was popping down into his cellar and coming up with more goodies. Ted wished he could have gone into the cellar to see what was down there, but I suspect that if Ted had gone down into the cellar he wouldn't have emerged alive. Finally Ford came up with another bar - and he said, "Professor Buttrey, these bars have been so desirable that people have even begun to forge them - and here is an example of one of the forgeries - but you can see that it is a forgery from X, Y, and Z." It was a very crude and obvious fake. Ted was overcome with admiration for Ford - the man had even made a fake of his own fakes, so that he could condemn the crude fake and thereby, by implication, authenticate his own higher quality fakes - the "fake of a fake" ruse.

When Ted got back home he wrote a letter to Ford, thanking him for the dinner, but mentioning that he couldn't quite remember all the details about the bars being found in a shipwreck - could Ford tell him that again in writing? Ford fell for the bait and and wrote a letter containing the nonsensical story that the bars had been found in a shipwreck that dated from some time in the 1740s. Ted put that letter in a safe deposit box, because that dishonest story was the final nail in Ford's (and the bars') coffin.

Ted delivered his paper at the New York session of the International Numismatic Congress, and there were a few objections - one British dealer said very stuffily that one shouldn't use the Congress to settle commercial disputes etc. etc. (It was because of these objections that the paper was never published in the Congress proceedings. Clyde Hubbard tried to get Margo Russell to publish Ted's paper in Coin World, but Ford threatened litigation. As Tom Delorey said to me, "Margo Russell was impossible to buffalo - but Ford buffaloed Margo." Finally Eric Newman paid Miguel Munoz to cover the printing of it in a periodical in Mexico, and most of the extra copies ended up in Eric Newman's basement in St. Louis.)

Now Ted had been trying all along to get access to the Mexican bars at the Smithsonian, and Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli wouldn't allow it (just as he wouldn't allow Eric Newman to look at the prooflike USAOG 1853 $20 pieces) - he said there was a problem with the display cases, there were special security conditions, yada yada. The Congress that year had two sessions, divided between the ANS in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington and when Eric and Ted got to Washington they went to look at the Smithsonian display, and they mocked and laughed at the Western gold bars and the prooflike USAOG 1853 $20 pieces - and then they came to where the Mexican gold bars should be. But they weren't there! Clain-Stefanelli, who had been in the audience in New York, had run down to Washington and quickly taken them off display. But he wasn't that good at concealing the missing bars, because you could still see where the bars had been: the fabric had faded where it was exposed to light, leaving behind bar shaped imprints of all the Mexican gold bars. Later the Clain-Stefanellis put the Mexican gold bars back up on display and they remained there, deceiving the American public, until the 21st century. Good old Stef!

Ted said that if one attacks the bars one has to expect a lot of grief from everybody and if you receive any kudos it will, if ever, only be offered in secret. Ted had such an experience after he delivered his talk at the International Numismatic Congress in New York - Calico, the great Spanish dealer, came up to him, and in a very low voice said, "Professor Buttrey, I think you are quite correct - I have always been suspicious of those bars and I have always warned my customers against them." Ted replied, "Well, why didn't you speak out and do something about them? My chief interest is classical antiquity, and even though I know something about modern, Mexican, coins, I'm still a Republican guy, not a Colonial guy." Calico lowered his voice still further, speaking almost a whisper, hissing the sibilants: "Professssor Buttrey, you are young..."

Ford constantly threatened to sue people, but he never went through with his threats (I suspect he was too cheap to spend the money - he was really a paper tiger, but he did a good job of scaring a lot of people), except for one occasion, and that was ca. 2002, when Ford filed a defamation lawsuit against Ted Buttrey for Buttrey's statements at the debate that the ANA sponsored.

The lawsuit underwent a curious course. Ford began by suing Ted Buttrey in Federal court in New York. At the same time, they also started a case in Chicago. The judge in the federal court in New York asked, "Isn't there another place where this case could be tried?" and Buttrey's lawyer said, "Well, they have filed a federal case in Chicago..." whereupon the judge said, "Fine, go litigate it there." Then they show up in Chicago and the basis of the federal jurisdiction is diversity jurisdiction, which requires the litigants to be domiciled in different states; but Ted wasn't domiciled in a state, he lived in Cambridge, England, and there is no diversity with someone domiciled in a foreign country. So they were kicked out and told to go to state court in Illinois. It turns out that Illinois has a rule where you only get two bites at a cherry, and if it's your third time trying to file in a court you are out of luck. So Ford's case was thrown out of court there. And they couldn't refile in state court in New York, because New York has no long arm jurisdiction for defamation!

Interestingly, Buttrey made an offer - he would drop all the procedural maneuvers and go straight to trying the case on the merits, on the condition that the two sides agree that the losing side would pay the legal costs - "the Gloucester Rule," like they have in England. This offer was rejected.

For more background on "The Great Debate" and the lawsuit against Buttrey, see this extensive March 3, 2001 New York Times article which quotes all the major players including Buttrey, Ford, Harvey Stack, National Numismatic Collection curator Dick Doty, and John Kleeberg. -Editor

To read the complete article, see:
Gold Bars, Glamorous Stories And a Battle Over Authenticity (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/03/arts/gold-bars-glamorous-stories-and-a-battle-over-authenticity.html)



Wayne Homren, Editor

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