An Oldie — But Not A Goodie

I’ve been away from eBay for a while, so I was a bit surprised to see this:

RARE CIVIL WAR 114TH PENNSYLVANIA INFANTRY SOLDIER’S ROSEWOOD & BRASS FLUTE FIFE

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offered for sale on eBay, 12-25-2020, Merry Christmas!  Photo courtesy of generallee292.

I see the seller has learned his lesson and stopped fraudulently marking mid-twentieth-century Cloos fifes with “genuine Civil War” regimental imprints.  But now he is committing a different kind of fraud — marking what could very well be a genuine Civil-War-era fife with a fake “genuine Civil-War inscription” <<sigh>> To my mind, this is not only fraudulent, it is a mortal sin that distorts the historical record and ruins the value of what was, before he made his blocky incisions, true (and valuable) antiques. 

However, not all of us have learned to discourage this kind of historical destruction by scrolling past his eBay offerings, because with 4 days and 12 hours to go until this auction reaches its end, the bidding already exceeds $100.00 and dozens of bidders are watching.  

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That’s the kind of patina that cannot be entirely scrubbed away. Photo courtesy of generallee292

The seller, identified only as generallee292, believes this instrument to be of museum quality, and he submits reasonably good photos as proof.  From these we can see that the gross characteristics point to a mid-19th-century origin for this instrument — even-size toneholes placed in 2 groups of 3, the oval-shaped embouchure with a slight swell, and a more-or-less straight body with cylindrical brass ferrules.  However, “mid-century” runs from  approximately 1840 to 1870, just sayin’. 

To me, this fife looks primarily machine-made, which would place it towards the end of that mid-century estimation and approach, if not fall right into, the 1870s.  However, the Civil War years cannot be entirely ruled out.  There is just enough gross evidence of handwork (in the application of the ferrule plus its decorative knurled-type strip) to indicate a careful attention to detail in performing tasks that machines could not yet perform, and I would further venture to guess that this was once a quality instrument.  I wonder, though, about the quality of the bore and whether the tone holes were undercut, but these are characteristics that demand personal inspection, which is obviously impossible here.  But one will never know unless one is the (lucky?) purchaser, because the seller has yet to answer my questions.   And he doesn’t accept returns, so. . .

He does, however, give an encouraging description of the fife:

EXTREMELY RARE ORIGINAL 114TH PENNSYLVANIA INFANTRY SOLDIER’S / MUSICIAN’S BRASS & MAPLE FLUTE / FIFE. THIS REMARKABLE MUSEUM GRADE INSTRUMENT WAS PURCHASED FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION IN GETTYSBURG, PA.  OUTSTANDING RICH PATINA THROUGHOUT, MADE OF ROSEWOOD WITH BRASS ENDS.  ” 114TH PA INF. ” CARVED ON THE SIDE NEAR THE FINGER HOLES – 100% COMPLETE, NO CRACKS OR OTHER DAMAGE, PLAYABLE ORIGINAL CIVIL WAR ERA PENNSYLVANIA FLUTE / FIFE.  A SUPERB PIECE OF HISTORY, PERFECT FOR YOUR DISPLAY OR COLLECTION, AN ABSOLUTE MUST HAVE INSTRUMENT.
 
MEASURES APPROX 15.75″ L X .75″ DIAMETER
 
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This is not patina, this is polish. Photo courtesy of generallee292.

Unfortunately, generallee292 fails to disclose what to me is a glaring problem with his otherwise-detailed description:  Just when was “114TH PA INF  “carved” on the side near the finger holes”?

This had to have occurred relatively recently, such the day after the seller “purchased [it] from a private collection in Gettysburg, PA” or maybe the day after the day after that, simply because, if for no other reason, the instrument is too clean. 
 
The “outstanding rich patina throughout” should be a dark, subtle glow, but this fife actually shines as if it had been stripped, cleaned, and polished.  This kind of work, clearly, was done before the carving occurred; otherwise, traces of it would have remained within the exposed raw surfaces of the wood. 
 
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This boxwood fife, ca 1850, retains its patina. #38779755, https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/antique-fife-by-gerock

By definition patina is “the sheen on a surface, such as one made of wood, produced by age and use.” There is no evidence of age or use in the finish of this instrument.   There are no wear patterns to indicate the countless number of times the fife had been inserted into and withdrawn from a pocket or a case, no wear or darkening to indicate the countless tunes that were fingered on its tone holes, no stains or spots to indicate where coffee spills, candle wax, tobacco juice, or dirt had been cleaned and re-cleaned from its surface.  There are no dings or gouges to indicate that this fife was ever dropped or knocked against a tin cup as it was stuffed into a knapsack — in fact, it looks as though it saw no use at all!  There is no evidence of the years of regular and repeated oiling that preserved this fife body from cracks and would have formed the “rich patina” he claims.  There is no accumulation of anything — dirt, oil, or cleaning agents — in the “carving” itself. 

And, speaking of “carving,” this particular example does not look like it was drawn freehand with a soldier’s penknife or bayonet tip.  It appears to have been “carved” by more sophisticated tooling — plus a template to ensure even height and depth of the lettering.

In my opinion, judging from evidence in the photos, the “carving” is new, period, and anyone from the 114th PA Inf who made it would have had to rise from his grave, sneak into generallee292’s workshop, plug in the router (or laser engraver), perform the dastardly deed, and then sneak back to his resting place.

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This ferrule shows not only patina but also pincer marks. As the wood (naturally) shrunk with age, the ferrules would loosen. The pincer made sure they would remain securely in place. Photo courtesy of generallee292.

But there is some proof of age on this instrument that the General couldn’t destroy.  Take a close look at the ferrules, which the seller provides in two views.  There is patina evident in the dings and discolorations.  This is where the metal has resisted his efforts and thus remains as the sole sign of age.  Cleaning and polishing has diminished it, but neither effort could strip this patina away entirely.

Another glaring problem is this:  Why do all of the “army-carved” fifes I’ve seen on eBay sales come from Maryland?   Every one I’ve seen has a different regimental marking. . .and they’ve all been from Yankee regiments.  Of course I haven’t seen them all, and in truth I haven’t even been looking all that hard, so there may be others from other areas of the US; whether they (if they exist) and/or this seller has produced some Confederate marks, I don’t know.  All I know is that the ones I’ve seen are all from Maryland.  The clean, even block-type script seen here is a definite change — and an upgrade from the sans serif font he once imprinted on Cloos fakes — I mean fifes.
 
Just asking the questions here, because contacting the seller through eBay has still produced no response. 
 
So, while we await generallee292’s replies, let’s investigate the 114th PA Inf.  There is a great resource right here on WordPress, in this blog:
 
 
Here’s a photo of Company F reproduced on that blog, original at the Library of Congress. 
 
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I see a single drum but no fifes.

 

Company H

Company H with no drums or fifes

 
 
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No fifes in this company, either.

Of course, a single photo of a few companies of the 114th PA Inf doesn’t supplant a detailed review of the enlistment rolls, pay receipts, pension records, and the like, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are names of fifers listed therein. But even if the 114th had filled-up quotas of fifers all through the war, that would not excuse the historical exploitation that *someone* in Maryland has been getting away with for years.

Let’s not encourage it by sending him money.

Addendum:  Well, it might or might not be true that a sucker is born every minute, but I do believe that 21 of them bid on this fife, thus putting the tidy sum of $750.00 securely into generallee292’s pocket. 

Not bad for a few minutes’ work with a router (or a laser engraver), eh?

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The famous showman, Phineas T. Barnum. Courtesy WikiImages.

And, no, while those words have often been associated with him, P.T. Barnum never really said them. . . or if he did, nobody actually heard him. 

In truth, it was the rather inglorious and previously unknown David Hannum, a banker from nearby Syracuse, who said it, and this after he himself had proved his own sucker propensities by purchasing the Cardiff Giant in 1869. 

Scott Tribble tells the story in A Colossal Hoax, the Giant from Cardiff that Fooled America (2008).  It’s a delightful read that is a whole lot cheaper than the musical hoax that prompted this discussion and much more entertaining (and much less disturbing) than any of the political hoaxes we’ve been warned about over the last 4 years.