'It was Gestapo tactics': Seizure of historic battle sword puts police at center of antiques controversy
By STEVEN GOODE | Hartford Courant | Published: November 9, 2019
WINDSOR, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — At an auction last month in Windsor, antiques dealer James Kochan expected to sell a sword carried in 1811 by future President William Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe for at least $100,000.
But before the historic military weapon could even go on the auction block, Kochan said local police seized it, saying the sword was stolen years ago from the Cincinnati Historical Society.
Now, Kochan says Windsor police took the sword illegally, and the sword that authorities in Ohio said was stolen, is not the one he owns.
“It was Gestapo tactics and they violated my rights left and right,” Kochan said in an interview Thursday from his home in Maine.
Windsor Police Chief Donald Melanson disagreed, saying Friday that the officers who went to the Nadeau Auction House in Windsor on Oct. 19 were doing their jobs after being contacted by an officer from the Cleves Police Department in Ohio asking them to stop the sale of a stolen sword.
“We received a request about a specific item. It was that item,” Melanson said Friday. “If we did not act, we’d be liable.”
Before police arrived at the auction house Oct. 19, Kochan said, he received a phone call from Tom Ratterman, a board member of the Cleves, Ohio-based Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation, a group that preserves the history of its local presidents and maintains for Harrison’s tomb.
Ratterman said a Tippecanoe battle sword owned by Harrison was discovered missing from the Cincinnati Historical Society in 1979 and that the missing sword appeared to match the one Kochan was auctioning off. Ratterman asked Kochan to halt the sale, saying the sword Kochan had for sale was the foundation’s long-lost sword.
Kochan told Ratterman he purchased the sword in 2015 for $7,500 at a Christie’s auction in New York City. He asked Ratterman for proof that the sword Kochan owned belonged to the foundation. He said Ratterman told him that he could not provide that information on a weekend – Oct. 19 was a Saturday – so he offered another solution.
Kochan said he offered not to release the piece for two working days to a potential buyer in order to give Ratterman time to show proof. Kochan said Ratterman also offered to make a bid of $15,000 to hold the sword.
And then, just minutes before the silver-hilt, 34.5-inch long, sword forged by noted Boston silversmith and sword maker Jacob Hurd was set to go on the block, Windsor police arrived at Nadeau’s on the Windsor-Hartford line.
“Sgt. [Anthony] Valenti and a patrolman showed up. Valenti said, ‘We’re here to recover a stolen sword,’" Kochan said. “I said ‘We have no stolen sword. We have proof of ownership.’”
Kochan said he told Valenti that he had a receipt for the sword from Christie’s and that the sword had been purchased by its previous owner, the late Eric Martin Wunsch, prior to the 1979 disappearance report Ohio authorities had told Windsor police about.
Wunsch’s name is listed in the auction guide as the sword’s previous owner.
“He didn’t care. He said, ‘We’re not leaving without the sword.’" Kochan said about the police officers. So Kochan relented and the cops left with the sword.
“The last thing I wanted to do at our first auction was to be hauled out in cuffs," Kochan said.
That’s when things went from bad to worse, in Kochan’s view, he said.
Relying on the advice of a local attorney. Kochan said he reached out to Windsor police and filed a complaint to prevent the sword from being taken out of state without a court hearing in Connecticut.
Windsor police responded after two days when acourt order out of Ohio had been filed. At that point, he said, Windsor police told him that there was no need for a Connecticut court hearing because there was no search warrant.
“They said, ‘It’s between you and Ohio now,’" Kochan said.
Melanson said Friday that Windsor police held the sword until they received a valid court order from Ohio to turn it over.
“His due process is in the Ohio courts," since the sword was stolen from that state, he said. “If what [Kochan] says is true, he should get the sword back."
Kochan said he’s confident that the sword’s ownership will eventually be determined in his favor, largely because he has proof of ownership predates the Ohio theft and because the sword described by the Ohio injunction does not match his sword. The court order, on file with the Hamilton County, Ohio, Probate Court, describes a sword with a 36-46-inch blade, with a blood groove and six names inscribed upon it. The sword seized by Windsor police has a 34.5-inch blade, no blood groove and five names inscribed on it, according to Kochan.
Regardless of the outcome, Kochan said he is considering taking legal action against Windsor police.
“My concern is that this sets a precedent that police can just roll in and seize something and send it across state lines,” he said. “Shame on the town of Windsor.”
Harrison, the country’s ninth president, was governor of the Indiana Territory when American soldiers and Native Americans fought for control of the land in the Northwest Territory during the Battle of Tippecanoe.
According to the website britannica.com, “Harrison declared the battle a great victory, and it served to elevate him from a frontier figure to a personality of national stature. He would be elected president in 1840, on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”
Harrison was the oldest person to be elected president at that time. He died just one month into his term.
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