As TV shows such as PBS’ Antiques Roadshow and History Channel’s American Pickers and Pawn Stars attract millions of viewers, criminals are going to extreme measures to find buried treasure.
In Burke County, two men are accused of desecrating and looting the Old Church Cemetery graves of five soldiers in search of heirlooms.
Though grave-robbing ranks among the most heinous property crimes, the rewards can be profitable. One button off a Confederate uniform from the Civil War can sell for as much as $150. Uniforms and medals range in value from $500 to several thousand dollars. A general’s or officer’s sword can go for between $20,000 and $30,000, antiques brokers say.
“There’s money in it,” said Paul Henry, a co-owner of Henry Brothers Auction Co. in downtown Augusta.
At the core of the black-market trade of historic war relics, experts say, is the inability to easily verify the history of Confederate artifacts, which hold more value because the government was dissolved in 1865 after the end of the Civil War.
The lack of background data enables private dealers and online collectors to sell large quantities of stolen artifacts under claims they are the heirloom of a distant relative, Henry said.
Confederate antiques rarely show up in auction houses and history museums because those businesses contract with licensed dealers, require a driver’s license for purchase or track items through the International Criminal Police Organization.
Henry estimates he has sold two war items in the past five years.
Scott Shepherd, the owner of Trends and Traditions Antique Mall on Washington Road, said his stock of Civil War artifacts is largely limited to Confederate bills. Still, he said, “There’s definitely a market for it.”
“With the way the economy is, we get a lot of people coming through here attempting to sell stolen items to make a quick buck,” he said.
Grave-robbing, though, is a new occurrence.
Pat Morgan, a special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s field office in Thomson, says Burke County’s case was the first he has seen in the state.
“This is the only time I have heard of a case such as this one in my 15 years as GBI agent,” Morgan said.
Nancy Glaser, the executive director at the Augusta Museum of History, said that although there is a black market for stolen artifacts, law enforcement worldwide are getting better at stopping the problem.
The museum has a fairly substantial military collection, specifically from the Civil War. Each item must have a clear record of ownership before it is accepted.
In her career as a curator, Glaser said, she has experienced only one case similar to Burke County’s.
She reported that incident, in Kentucky, to state police. The defendants went to prison.
“If anything walks in the door that looks shady,” Glaser said, “you report it immediately.”