An Offer You Can’t Refuse, Part I

Terzameron Day 23
April 12, 2020
Tim Martin


In 1993, Sotheby’s auctioned an important collection of American silver, including what were then the only set of four Colonial American candlesticks in private hands. (Amazingly, another set of four were recently reunited, but, that’s another story.) They were very beautiful. They were marked by a great silversmith, Samuel Tingley of New York. The estimate, $200,000 to $300,000, was a lot of money perhaps, but, again, they were the only set available for a private buyer. While we were debating how high to bid, we got a call from a man named Bradley Phillips. Phillips introduced himself to Eric as a passionate student of early American history, a conservationist, and a patriot. He had grown up, he said, in Old Town Alexandria. He mentioned knowing Clem Conger, the recently retired curator of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the U.S. Department of State. He vouchsafed that his love of the period had inspired him to purchase “Bushfield,” a somewhat dilapidated house which had belonged to John Augustine Washington, George Washington’s brother. Phillips was restoring the property as a private residence, but, with the help of some wealthy friends who had agreed to sit on the board of his foundation, he hoped eventually to donate it to the state as a museum. Would we, he wondered, be willing to buy the Tingley sticks on commission, as he felt they would be a great addition to the fine furnishings he had already assembled.


Eric, through his great pal Henry McNeil, had been quite involved with the State Department Reception Rooms, so he knew Clem Conger very well. He called Clem, and yes, indeed, Clem knew Phillips. As a matter of fact, they went to the same church. Phillips seemed very rich—he drove about five different Mercedes-Benzes, all top-of-the-line. Dandy, Eric thought: a rich man who goes to a nice church. He gave him a pass on buying what he called “Nazi cars.”


We went to the sale. We bought the candlesticks for about $225,000. Mr. Phillips was thrilled. Was Eric free that weekend? No? Definitely no? Oh, what a shame, it was just that, as it happened, he was having a big dinner party with all his rich friends. Clem was invited! What a shame Eric couldn’t bring the sticks down in person! But how about another weekend soon? Yes? Great, and look: could we Fedex the sticks down for this weekend? His bank had already confirmed: they had the details to wire the money, and when his friends saw them they might be inspired to buy more great silver!


This was before the internet. You couldn’t google “Bushfield Manor” and see that it was at 367 Club House Loop in Mount Holly, that it was not dilapidated, and that it was owned by someone else. You couldn’t look up the address to which you were shipping the quarter-of-a-million-dollar antique silver candlesticks and see that it was a subsidized housing apartment in the worst part of Alexandria. You couldn’t Google Bradley+Phillips+Alexandria and find, with a bit of digging, that it was an alias, and that the man behind the alias had an occupation, and that that occupation was “Confidence Man.” You couldn’t know that the five Mercedes-Benzes were stolen, with an elaborate scam, from a dealer in Florida.


Absolutely he had sent the money. He was adamant. He would beg our pardon but we’d just have to trust him! A Swiss Bank. Swiss Bank Company. The Swiss don’t do that—much more careful—numbers only. Wrong bank is possible—happens. Could we—please–triple check please. Often takes a long time. Actually Mr. Shrubsole as someone who regularly wires millions of dollars around the globe he would tell us that in fact it often takes ten days…


And then he was gone.


I hadn’t ever seen my stepfather in a sweat. He lived within his means, and he never cared too much about money in the first place. But it so happened that just at this time he had chosen to indulge himself in a long-deferred dream of buying and restoring an important old Rolls-Royce, and every day, for those two long weeks, we would arrive at the shop to find two sets of faxes: one on fake-Swiss-bank-letterhead threatening legal action against us if we continued to fail to look into the missing funds we’d been sent by their very wealthy client Mr. Phillips, and one from an outfit in Connecticut detailing how many seemingly endless thousands of dollars it takes to restore an old Rolls-Royce.  It was a nightmare. We had to get those candlesticks back…

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