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USS Arizona items pulled from auction


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POSTED: Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lime-encrusted silverware taken from the officers' mess aboard the USS Arizona during World War II have been pulled from an auction.

Cowan's Auctions, a Cincinnati resale house specializing in American historical and military items, had planned to sell the 24 pieces on Dec. 9, with initial estimates of $15,000 to $20,000. But when Navy attorneys got wind of the planned sale, they put pressure on the auction house.

A Navy spokesman, Bill Doughty, noting that lawyers were reviewing the matter, explained that “;U.S. Navy craft and their associated contents remain the property of the U.S. Navy unless expressly abandoned or title is transferred by appropriate U.S. government authority.”;

Property rights are established in the U.S. Constitution and international maritime law.

“;USS Arizona is considered one of our nation's most sacred and hallowed historical sites,”; Doughty said. “;Many of the 1,177 crewmen who died on Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the ship are entombed in the ship at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. We cherish the memory of the sailors who sacrificed in World War II. The significance of USS Arizona should never be diminished or cheapened.”;

Auctioneer Wes Cowan still lists the Arizona silver pieces as one of the “;Top Ten Highlights of the Upcoming American History Auction”; on his Web site, although the actual listing has been redacted. Cowan has appeared on PBS' “;Antiques Roadshow”; and “;History Detectives”; as an expert in military artifacts.

The silver-plated artifacts, which include a teapot, saucers, candlestick and other items from the battleship's wardroom, had been consigned by the family of Navy diver Carl Webster Keenum, who apparently kept the items while salvaging remains, weapons, oil and other debris from the sunken ship during the war. Keenum died in 1964.

The sale prompted immediate reactions. “;It was a complete disregard of history,”; complained Connecticut salvage diver and historian Gary Gianotti, who started the ball rolling Monday when he informed the Naval History Center of the sale.

Informed that the auction house had pulled the items, Gianotti said: “;No one is a bad guy here. People just need to do the right thing, and I'm glad it happened so quickly.”;

James Delgado, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, said, “;History increasingly has become a commodity for sale, and when it comes to a national treasure like the silver from USS Arizona, the thought of selling it to any bidder, where it could disappear for years, if not forever, is sad.”;

He added: “;When Arizona was afloat, patriotic citizens banded together to purchase the silver for the use of the ship. I hope that members of this generation will now band together to again purchase the silver for presentation and prominent display, if not at the Arizona Memorial, then at some other appropriate museum where all can see and appreciate it as a reminder of a proud ship, her crew and the events of Dec. 7, 1941.”;

In a statement, Cowan said the gallery had withdrawn the items and urged the Keenum family to donate them to the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center.

The auction house also claimed that the family's decision to sell the heirlooms was recently prompted when a relative came down with leukemia.

“;Perhaps the family can help their sick relative by donating the items to Pearl Harbor, where they belong, and use the publicity to start a fundraiser,”; Gianotti said. “;I'll be the first to donate.”;

The auction also included Keenum's service record, family photographs and keepsakes of his wartime tour, and “;a copy of a 1997 letter from the United States Department of the Interior, USS Arizona Memorial expressing interest in a potential gift to the memorial,”; according to the catalog.

The letter shows the family had tried to sell the items to the memorial association more than a decade ago, said Dan Martinez, Park Service historian for the memorial.

“;And now they're up for auction, which is the path they chose,”; Martinez said. “;At the time, our curator Deborah King, I believe, was in contact with them, and the letter is probably signed by her.”;

Such a letter, Martinez said, should not be part of the auction house's provenance authenticating the items. Quite the opposite: “;There was no way of proving the items were genuine. They may be, but there was no authentication. In any event, we would have asked the family to donate the items so that they could be shared by all Americans.”;