Harold Maker: An Ideal Provenance Distraction

Earlier today, the Institute for New Testament Textual Research published provenance information for two papyrus fragments that are connected to pieces known to have been stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society’s collection of Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The provenance information was supplied by Andrew Stimer, who is currently in possession of the fragments, and according to this provenance story, the papyrus fragments ultimately go back to a figure named Harold Maker. To be clear, I think the connection to Harold Maker is false. These pieces almost certainly were stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society within the last few years.

So Harold Maker is in all likelihood a distraction. But he’s at least a colorful distraction. In a manner very similar to the way that Professor Dirk Obbink provided “the Robinson Papyri” (a somewhat murky collection established in the 1950s in the USA) as the source of the infamous Sappho papyrus, now the story provided by Mr. Stimer leads us back to another poorly documented collection from mid-twentieth-century America. And it’s interesting that the first time I came across the name Harold Maker was when I was reading a book chapter written by none other than Scott Carroll.

Now, let me tell you a little story.

Scott Carroll has provided a written account of the building of the Van Kampen Collection of books and manuscripts, a task he carried out before he helped to build the Green Collection. Carroll offered up the following brief anecdote in the course of a somewhat confused discussion of Coptic manuscripts he had acquired on behalf of the Van Kampen Collection from a “London dealer”:

“The only clue regarding the manuscripts’ immediate provenance was a lone letter-sized envelope holding a small fragment with the following printed as a return address: Harold H. Von Maker, Stone Eagles, Montclair, NJ. I have asked the London dealer repeatedly about where he had acquired them, but he never revealed his source.” (Scott Carroll, “Biblical Treasures in Private Holdings: The Van Kampen Collection,” pp. 235-293 in John D. Wineland, The Light of Discovery: Studies in Honor of Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pickwick, 2007)

Now, Stone Eagles is an impressive historic home in Montclair. And who is Harold H. Von Maker? There is a Harold Maker of Irvington, New Jersey (about a 20-minute drive from Stone Eagles) who is sometimes mentioned as a collector and dealer of rare books and manuscripts in the 1950s and early 1960s. For instance, the name shows up in the records of Yale’s Beinecke Library as the source of a 15th century Italian manuscript and in the records of the New York State Library as a previous owner of a set of dismembered pages of rare books. The American manuscript collector John M. Lawrence has described this Harold Maker as “legendary and almost mythical.” And, indeed, I find very little online about him. But what about that “Von”? Now things get interesting. There is a figure who shows up in property law textbooks in relation to the case of Porter vs. Wertz (Court of Appeals, State of New York, 3 March 1981). The case centers on a certain Harold Von Maker (a.k.a. Harold Maker, a.k.a. Peter Wertz) who sold a valuable painting he didn’t actually own (sounds like a vaguely familiar scenario. . .).

An FBI agent involved in the arrest of Harold Von Maker wrote a book that includes a full chapter on the Von Maker episode. After his retirement from the FBI in 1994, Thomas McShane became a lawyer and in 2006 published Stolen Masterpiece Tracker, an autobiographical account of his days as an FBI investigator of art crimes. The prose of the book is almost a parody of mid-20th century TV detective talk (“the bad guy had a .357 Magnum with a massive slug that could blow the gams clear off a bony French chick with a single shot”–an actual quote from the book). Nevertheless, McShane’s account of Von Maker is a fascinating tale of fraud and deception in the art world. McShane first encountered Von Maker in the latter’s alias of Prince Harold von Hohenloe, but he also seems to have been known at different times as Dr. Harold J. Maker, Peter Wertz, and David Patterson. Here is McShane’s description of Von Maker:

“The 5-foot-9-inch, balding, pudgy, 42-year-old grifter leased various mansions, which he resided in for only a few months, rarely paying the high rent. Sometimes, he’d do nothing more than gain temporary access to one under the guise of buying it, and would hang around just long enough to have someone photograph him on the grounds. To complete the picture, he usually wore a royal blue jacket with an Ivy League family crest stitched on it. He’d then show prospective marks the photos to support his claims of wealth and power. It didn’t take long to discover his real name, the equally impressive sounding Harold von Maker. Instead of a castle in Austria, however, the 42-year-old hailed from the decidedly unimpressive city of Newark, New Jersey.”

Using these luxury homes as a way of establishing his financial credentials, Von Maker ran a business called Antique Investors, Inc. that specialized in the market for high-end art. But all was not as it seemed. Here again is McShane’s description:

“He had acquired art catalogues from the major auction houses and galleries, and went down the list of great masterpieces for sale around the country. He then contacted the sales agents, gave them his celebrity spiel and nifty address, and somehow convinced a few of them to send him the paintings on consignment in return for full payment within 30 days. Once he gained possession of a valuable painting, he used it in various ways, often as the centerpiece to pawn dozens of fakes he had in inventory. In this sense, he was ‘art kiting,’ stealing the concept of ‘check kiting’ which follows one good check with dozens of bad ones.”

Eventually, the FBI ran a sting operation that resulted in the arrest of Von Maker and the seizure of his inventory.

Image source: Thomas McShane, Stolen Masterpiece Tracker (Barricade Books, 2006)

Von Maker, however, posted bail, fled, and was never seen again. What caught my attention in the story of Von Maker’s arrest and the confiscation of his assets was this statement by McShane:

“We took everything I thought was good, and left the obvious junk fakes. We had to summon a truck to haul them out of there. Among the ‘treasures’ I did take was an ancient Bible manuscript that turned out to be phony. Von Maker was probably marketing it as being written in God’s own hand.”

Obviously, it would be nice to know more about this fake biblical manuscript. I tried to contact McShane a little over a year ago at an e-mail address I found online, but I never got a response.

If I understand McShane’s chronology correctly, Von Maker was 42 years old in 1973. So he would have been in his 20s in the 1950s. Is he the same Harold Maker whose name pops up in the Beinecke records and elsewhere? It seems plausible (it would be quite a coincidence to have two people called Harold Maker selling rare books and manuscripts). The New Jersey connection strengthens the probability (I note that the house in the background of the photo above closely resembles Stone Eagles in Montclair).

Earlier this year, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to review the FBI records for Harold Von Maker. The request was denied. I appealed to the Department of Justice, but they’re otherwise occupied at the moment.

But, to bring it back to Scott Carroll: Some of Von Maker’s wares made their way into the Van Kampen Collection. And according to Mr. Stimer’s provenance statement released today, he has “another manuscript in [his] collection that also came through Harold Maker, and with it are copies of sales materials he issued in the early 1950s.” It would be interesting to learn more about these manuscripts and how they made their way into the Van Kampen and Stimer collections.

Fortunately, the papyrologist Graham Claytor has been looking into the Von Maker collection (which did in fact include papyri), so more light will be shed on Mr. Von Maker, an intriguing figure (and, for the purposes of these Oxyrhynchus fragments, an ideal distraction).

This entry was posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Harold von Maker, Scott Carroll. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Harold Maker: An Ideal Provenance Distraction

  1. Pete Head says:

    Great work Brent.

  2. Sili says:

    Your job keeps getting more fascinating.

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