Sits in prison. Is he a con artist----

or did he just shoot himself in the foot?

By: David Armstrong.

FORBES - 12//25/06

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 “He’s the king,” says his friend, sometime business partner and New York antique dealer Martin Lane. “His research single-handedly made this hobby what it is. This stuff wouldn’t be worth nearly what it is if it weren’t for Wilson.”

To his detractors Wilson is a con man, snookering the collecting elite and part-time hobbyist alike, artificially pumping up the value of old guns and working with a network of conniving dealers who profit off the inflated values. Sometimes, his accusers say, he simply steals guns outright. “At best, he’s been abusive of his position; at worst, a total crook;’ says Jim Gordon, who serves on the board of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.

Whatever the case, Wilson, 67, sits in a federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif. He is serving a 12-month-and-one-day sentence after pleading guilty last year to cheating a California seller out of a $500,000 1840 Colt Paterson revolver that once belonged to the son of French King Louis-Philippe. He’ll be released three days after Christmas; in March, 2007 he will head to a juried trial in Louisville, Ky. to face criminal charges in a separate case, where he could get an additional 11 years. In an eight page letter from prison, Wilson says he’s innocent of all new charges, the victim of an overzealous attorney, jealous dealers and “wannabe” scholars who resent his success and influence in the gun trade. “After my unprecedented many contributions to the study of arms, to arms collecting’ he writes, “my treatment ... is disgraceful”

Indeed, Wilson has had both success and influence. For more than four decades he has written more extensively about historical firearms in the U.S. than anyone else, producing 42 books, including the definitive history of Colt firearms and an  exhaustive guide to Colt serial numbers and manufacturing dates, the bible for dealers and collectors. He’s written many catalog essays and articles, has sat on the boards of the nation’s major antique gun museums—and has been kicked off at least one.

He has also been the go-to guy in documentaries on gun history for the Discovery; A&E and History channels. For collectors his acknowledgment of a gun’s provenance and value was widely considered the last word. “For years I was educated by Larry He knew everyone, all over the world’ says New York financier Donald Zilkha, who bought Colt’s Manufacturing Co. in 1994.

The son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers from Mnnesota, Wilson developed a passion for antique guns matched only by a carefully cultivated image of the gentleman adventurer. His Hadlyme, Conn. home was filled with curiosities: a full-size replica of Wells Fargo stagecoach in the middle of the living room, an 1893 roulette table and built-in vaults that held iown collection of rare firearms, and a vast trove of books. A stuffed boar and lion inhabited the place, along with hyena and baboon skulls, trophies from the nine expeditions Wilson made to Africa, accompanied by the likes of former Treasury Secretary William Simon and wealthy art dealer Alec Wildenstein.

Wilson regularly attended, and participated in, the Mile Miglia, once driving a rare 1947 Cisitalia in the annual recreation of the famed Italian cross-country race from Brescia to Rome. “He was trapped in a society that he tried to keep up with, the world of the rich and famous, and he couldn’t do it;’ says John Malloy, a collector who has known Wilson for at least 30 years.

To many who know him, Wilson is no crook, just a befuddled scholar—a freelance appraiser and author with little business acumen who got in over his head financially even as gun owners, relying on his expertise and connections, trusted him to act as a middleman in their deals. They say Wilson never really recovered after sinking as much as $500,000 into In the Blood, a feature-length movie in 1989, shot in Africa, re-creating Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909-10 hunting expedition. Directed by Pumping Iron ametur George Butler, the film got good reviews— but no audience.

The deal that landed him in jail is vintage Wilson . In 1999 the owner of the Colt Paterson, a gun that once belonged to the Duke of Orleans, entrusted Wilson to find a buyer, for $500,000 in cash. Soon after, Wilson sold the gun through Lane to another collector for $250,000 and a handful of lesser-valued guns but repeatedly told the seller that he needed more time to dose the deal, according to a lawsuit filed by Antiques & Arts Trading Consultants, the seller.

The suit claims Wilson used the money to repay debts he owed Lane and others— including William Eby, with whom Wilson also had an earlier agreement to sell a different $500,000 Colt pistol—and to fund Wilson’s “extravagant Iifestyle.

Wilson declared bankruptcy in January 2001. The seller later won a non-dischargeable $750,000 claim against Wilson, the sum of what’s due with interest and other fees, though it has received only $50,000. Last year, Wilson says, the lawyers hounding him for the money got the US. district  attorney in Connecticut involved, and Wilson—believing he wouldn’t serve any time in jail, say people close to~—plead guilty to one count of wire fraud in connection with the case. In his letter Wilson admits there is “partial payment due” on the deal but says the federal case was pushed by the seller’s lawyer in an attempt to use the federal government “as their bill collector.”

In the wake of his bankruptcy Wilson’s Connecticut home was auctioned off for $1 million . Other gun sellers turned up with similar stories about being stiffed— with more than $800,000 owed to Lane for previous deals; $250,000 to auction house Bonhams & Butterfields; $400,000 to a gun seller in Akron, Ohio; and $50,000 to a doctor in South Dakota. Joseph Imbrognio of Mechanicsburg, Pa. claims he engaged Wilson in 1999 or 2000 to sell a $40,000 Colt Walker that had been in his fiancée’s family for 80 years, a gun believed to have been with the famed Texas Ranger, Cordell Walker, in Mexico. He never saw the gun (or the money) again~ “I tell everyone who will listen that Wilson is a thief’ he says.

The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 2000 gave Wilson 100 guns to sell. After his bankruptcy, only 37 were accounted for. Still the museum,s curator Richard Rattenbury defends Wilson: “The situation with us was disappointing, but theres no doubt he’s always been honest with me.”

Suspicions about Wilson first surfaced in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was working as a pro bono adviser to the Colt Firearms Collection at the Museum of Connecticut History Wilson arranged a series of five trades with the museum, including one in which he swapped a double-barreled Colt rifle that he bought for $15,000 to the museum for nine other guns, six of which he soon sold for $44,000. In another trade Wilson gave seven guns worth $43,000 to the museum in return for 16 guns he would later value at $84,000.

After an 18-month investigation, then state attorney general Joseph Lieberman filed a report to Connecticut governor William O’Neill in 1988. Given the wide- ranging values by different appraisers of items moving in and out of the museum, Lieberman could not prove that a crime had been committed. Wilson says his profits were the result of “dumb luck” and “a typical markup” over the years since he owned the guns. Current museum president Dean Nelson tracked the guns in later deals and is convinced Wilson profited handsomely. In 2004, he says, the FBI in Louisville, Ky. asked for those records.

None of this, apparently, was known to Owsley Brown Frazier when he started to build a vast gun collection in 1997. The 71-year-old former vice chairman of Brown-Forman, makers of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, among other brands, turned first to Michael Salisbury, a relative unknown in gun collecting circles who had met Frazier through a mutual friend. For the next five years Salisbury, acting on Frazier’s behalf, bought hundreds of guns, including 19th-century Colts and Winchesters. In late 2000 Salisbury tapped Wilson to appraise the budding collection. Wilson flew to Louisville, met Frazier and was quickly brought into the fold. Frazier had 46 guns at the time, and Wilson signed off on a $5.5 million appraisal, almost twice what Frazier had paid.

By the middle of 2001 Frazier was committed to the idea of building a gun museum and charged Salisbury with building a “world class” collection. Court documents say Salisbury bought more than 400 guns in 16 months. Meanwhile, Wilson made many trips to Louisville to advise on acquisitions and plans for the museum. He introduced Frazier to the head of the British Royal Armories—the U. .K. museum dedicated to arms and armor; now, thanks to Wilson, the third floor of Frazier’s museum contains the Royal Armories’ only U.S. outpost. He persuaded Frazier to spend $300,000 to support research on a history of women and firearms, Silk and Steel (Random House, 2003).

Wilson’s bankruptcy apparently didn’t bother Frazier, though others close to the museum’s foundation had their suspicions. When the museum published a brochure with photos of a Winchester rifle and Remington revolver, both supposedly decorated by early American engraver L.D. Nimschke, they were called out as fakes by John MaIloy, an expert on Nimschke. “Wilson, in my opinion, should have known they were fakes:’ Malloy says. Another controversial trade was the piece Wilson brought to Frazier: a Holland & Holland double-barreled shotgun presented to Theodore Roosevelt by the British government. Wilson sold the gun, known as ‘The big stick:’ to Frazier for $900,000 after buying it from San Francisco dealer Greg Martin for $650,000. Days later, according to a lawsuit filed by Frazier against Wilson and Salisbury, Wilson upped the appraised value to $3 million to disguise the fact that Frazier overpaid for it. Wilson now says “no more valued, or important, sporting rifle exists~’ Martin agrees.

It’s not clear who tipped Frazier off that he had paid more than the guns were worth. But in 2004 he filed a civil suit against Salisbury, Salisbury’s wife and Wilson, alleging conspiracy to defraud by overcharging him for guns and covering up the fraud by overvaluing the pieces; two years later the feds followed with criminal charges. In one particularly egregious transaction, according to the federal indictment, Frazier was charged $ 135,000 for a Henry Repeating rifle that Salisbury bought for $3 1,000. (Salisbury’s lawyer says those numbers are wrong.) Wilson’s official appraisals didn’t reflect what Salisbury paid, says the civil suit, but rather what Frazier coughed up, and some-times even twice that amount, to give the “veneer of legitimacy” to the transactions. The federal indictment charges Wilson with knowingly signing off on inflated valuations on Frazier’s 8283 tax forms for charitable contributions to the museum. (The IRS requires the signature of a qualified appraiser for noncash donations exceeding $5,000.) Neither the civil suit nor the indictment spells out exactly how Wilson allegedly profited from the fraud, aside from fees he may have gotten as the appraiser.

In a countersuit Salisbury claims that he and Frazier had a written agreement that guaranteed profits from the guns he found for Frazier. Salisbury also claims in his countersuit that Frazier encouraged Wilson to appraise the guns “on the high end.’ Wilson says he was “flabbergasted” to be named as a coconspirator. In an interview with Frazier’s lawyer, Paul Weller, Wilson said that he simply signed off on appraisals that Salisbury provided. In his letter Wilson accuses Weller of “tricking” him into making damning statements about his role at the museum.

When the smoke finally clears—and all the sentences and settlements are meted out—one thing is for sure: With all the grappling for authority and big clients, the gun business, as dealer Martin Lane says, “is a nasty game.”


FORBES Magazine

December 25, 2006. (Pgs. 112-120)

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