The Rommel Honor Dagger
Many collectors seem to be drawn to technical works that are published solely to sell fakes. These gaudy books contain endless “variant” pieces, “prototypes,” “late-war production” items and many other entertaining holy relics that happen to be in the possession of either the author or one of his partners in crime.
It might prove instructive to illustrate a fictional fraud, based entirely on factual procedures.
Let us consider the “Rommel Honor Dagger.”
This would be a special, custom-made item given by Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini to German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel upon the occasion of his capture of the British North African military base at Tobruk.
The merchandiser of this piece is the fictive Lothar Sneed, America’s Biggest Dagger Dealer. Sneed stands at five foot, six inches and weighs in at three hundred and fifty pounds.
He once worked for the CIA, selling encryption machines to one country and the encryption codes to their rivals. He also sold surplus military weapons to groups supported by the private policy aims of that agency and, on the side, smuggled drugs with a reasonable profit going to his employers. After an interesting lifetime of manipulative mendacity, Sneed is now retired and makes a very large amount of money as America’s Biggest Dagger Dealer.
Sneed has a friend, Basil Colon, who publishes books on rare and unusual daggers and swords of the Third Reich period. An artifact that appears in a Colon book is an artifact that can be sold for large sums of money.
Sneed has an arrangement with a dagger manufacturer in Milan, Italy. This enterprising gentleman inherited a factory from his grandfather and the inventory contained parts and the dies to make Fascist dress daggers.
Colon did a series on rare Italian Fascist Daggers, thereby creating an interest in the collecting fraternity. Signor Stronzo has been cranking out his “official” daggers for three years and has sold almost every one of these new creations to Lothar Sneed. Helped by the Colon books, Sneed has developed a reputation as the sole source for these daggers. Once the standard Fascist dagger has saturated the market, Sneed and Colon have decided to produce interesting, and salable, “variants” and “presentation” models.
One day, while visiting Signor Stronzo’s shop, Sneed sees a gaudy dagger in a case. It turns out to be a fancy piece manufactured to the specifications of a well-known Italian typewriter manufacturer. Unfortunately for Signor Stronzo, the manufacturer died of an infarction while servicing his sixteen year old mistress and the dagger has been unclaimed.
Colon buys it and back in the United States, he shows it to a friend of his, Wally Smegma. Wally is an expert in creating new and interesting rare pieces for the trade.
The finial of the typewriter dagger depicts a melon-breasted woman and has to go. The plotters have decided to create the “Rommel Honor Dagger” for both fun and profit.
The finial is replaced with a silver one depicting the Italian Fasces on one side and the German swastika on the other. The blade is engraved with a bad Italian inscription from Mussolini to Rommel and with a facsimile of the Duce’s signature.
Four hours in a lapidary rock-polishing drum with a handful of sawdust and some buck shot added a marvelous patina to the dagger.
The finished piece is then photographed from many angles in black and white and the next stage of the operation is launched.
The physical dagger exists but no one would buy it without a provenance.
In the elegant world of fine art, this provenance is most often achieved by inserting a fake into a commissioned coffee table book on an artist or period. This is called Salting the Mine.
Firstly, a series of original photographs of Mussolini and Rommel are purchased from Photo Luce in Italy. The black and white pictures are culled and finally, an original picture of Rommel is carefully applied to a selected photograph of Mussolini, with another addition of the new dagger, rephotographed and then screened.
An original German wartime newspaper is located, the front page photographed front and back and the picture of the two men and most especially the new dagger, set into the page. The whole is rephotographed and run off on newsprint at a local print shop.
The finished page, printed front and back, is placed between two sheets of glass and stuck in an attic window of the Sneed estate to age gracefully in the sun. After about a month, when the paper has turned a lovely shade of ochre, it is removed, excess portions removed and the whole glued into a photo album.
Sneed has a postman with the right appearance and he dresses him in a U.S. Army uniform of the wartime period, takes him into his back yard and poses the costumed man holding up a swastika flag in one hand and the Rommel Honor Dagger in the other. The finished photograph is soaked in tea until it attains a lovely patina of age and it too is glued into the album beside the original newspaper.
Sneed bought the album, which is genuine, at a military collector’s show. It is full of pictures of shattered German buildings and other ruins and came from the estate of a deceased warrior. The few extra blank pages in the rear now sport the picture of the bogus GI with the equally bogus dagger and authenticating newspaper clipping.
In return for his standard fee of 30%, Colon agrees to include the newly-discovered treasure in his next book. “Daggers and Edged Weapons of the Third Reich, Volume 11.” For an additional fifteen Italian Fascist High Leader’s Daggers plus three Gestapo General’s Belt Buckle guns (invented by Sneed five years ago and a standard item in his catalog of incredibly rare relics) Colon agrees to place a full color depiction of the Rommel Honor Dagger on the cover of the forthcoming book.
This absolutely guarantees instant and frantic interest on the part of the more advanced of the dagger and sword collectors and Sneed views this as a reasonable operating expense.
To actually own a piece depicted on the cover of a Colon book is a consummation devoutly to be wished by an advanced collector and this piece is no exception. The Rommel Honor Dagger is such a gaudy and generally aesthetically tasteless piece as to inflame the passions of any advanced collector and Sneed now begins his final operation.
Sneed and the dagger will appear at a prestigious military collector’s show given by himself and Colon. The dagger, now ensconced in an expensive rosewood case (which Sneed has used before and will use again), is put on display along with the doctored photo album, open to the page with the recent but aged additions.
Awed attendees to the show stand in line in front of the Sneed display tables and slowly file past the newest treasure. They are allowed no more than thirty seconds of viewing time and then must move on to let others experience the historical treasure.
The piece is not necessarily for sale, Sneed tells the gawping multitude. He might present it to a German museum as his token of respect for that now-free and democratic American-controlled republic. On the other hand, he might be persuaded to consider offers if, and only if, they are serious offers.
This is a piece, as Sneed says later during a speech to the attendees, that belongs in a really advanced collection. It rightfully belongs to someone who understands history and has the capability of truly appreciating a genuine piece of world history.
Later that evening, as Sneed held court at the local Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, an offer is made to him that he cannot refuse.
Carl Mudd, a born-again Christian latex marital-aid manufacturer from Sweetwater, Florida declares his determination to possess what Sneed refers to as “an investment in history for a discriminating collector.” His wife, Winifred, was tragically and accidentally compacted while rummaging deep inside in a dumpster behind the local Piggly Wiggly Food Mart, seeking food bargains.
The insurance company had recently settled with Mudd and he offers Sneed one hundred thousand dollars in cash and his late wife’s collection of Barbie dolls for the Rommel Honor Dagger. Sneed will accept the money with dignified mien and the dolls will end up in another dumpster.
The Rommel Honor Dagger will still appear in several books but this time, a quivering Mudd is told, the line “From the Carl Mudd Collection” can be seen beneath the pictures of his latest treasure.
And that is how the world turns.
And for ‘Rommel Honor Dagger’ one could just as easily say ‘Monet,’ ‘Rodin,’ ‘Remington’, ‘Dali,” or ‘Athenian decadrachma.’
There is, of course, truth in this jest.
The Colon books exist in fact and certainly in spirit. These types of “reference works” are popular in the world of expensive artifacts, be it Nazi daggers or fine art, because they are very well illustrated, if nothing more than catalogs of available and expensive fakes.
The pictures are important because it is to be regretted that large numbers of the American population, in addition to being grossly overweight, are nearly incapable of reading English, let alone a foreign language, so no doubt we can expect the future to contain an increasingly large number of picture books