By the time he was 12 years old Shannon Pritchard had discovered his calling in life—collecting Confederate artifacts. He started out relic hunting near battlefields, obscure campsite locations and forgotten fortifications. Today, at age 48, Pritchard is a consultant for serious collectors of the rarest and most valuable Confederate memorabilia. His Virginia-based business, Old South Military Antiques, deals in the highest-quality collectibles. Virginia Living spoke with Pritchard at his secluded country home east of Richmond.
So, when and how did you get interested in Confederate things?
I began relic hunting when I was a kid. It started as an interest, quickly became an obsession, and before I knew it, it was an addiction. I mostly found bullets at first. When I could not find enough underground...I began looking above ground. I bought a nice buckle and some buttons from a gentleman, studied them, and afterwards sold them for a profit, and bought something better. This is the way it went for a long time.
The relics you found were genuine, but how did you know the real thing when you started buying things from collectors and dealers?
I would study, study, study. And read whatever I could. There wasn’t much literature back then. They didn’t really have a lot of Civil War collectibles shows either. I searched out more experienced collectors and dealers about my finds to pick their brains.
And what was the result of that? How did that affect your collecting?
It changed my whole perspective. I began to understand what to look for in a belt buckle, for instance. What a genuine buckle looked like, felt like, and how it was made—the color, patina, texture, wear-points, etc. I’d take pictures and make measurements. I’ve always employed my instincts, but instinct without knowledge can be dangerous, especially when a piece is tantalizing.
Why is that?
There are a whole lot more Union artifacts to be had than Confederate. The Yankees just had a lot more stuff to drop, lose, discard, wear, waste and shoot. Their stuff was quite standardized—uniform, regulation, government-made in the millions. The bulk of Confederate things are individually made, even homemade, piecework, or at best manufactured by small concerns, state depots and armories. That holds true for all of [it]—swords, leather goods, uniforms, pistols, muskets, etc. A lot are just downright crude and cobbled together. To me, these rough and rugged things speak more eloquently about the Confederate soldier and the cause than the stuff the North turned out does about theirs.
Do you use scientific methods to authenticate?
Yes. It’s kind of like CSA [Confederate States of America] meets CSI. A lot of science goes into determining if an item is real. I can test cloth to see if what might be blood stains are actually blood, or if the dye used was natural or synthetic; synthetic did not come into use until after the war. I use a microscope to see if holes in textiles are moth or battle-related damage, or if the thread is mercerized or non-mercerized. Mercerization was not invented until after the war. The hard part is doing the detective work, connecting the dots of history, provenance, separating legend from truth, before you can pronounce an item 100 percent good. Without the family, ownership, military and historical vetting, and the physical audit, you can’t say a piece is definitely what it purports to be.
Have you ever been fooled by a piece?
In the early days I was fooled numerous times. There are a lot of Confederate fakes. If I make a mistake it is I who takes the loss, not my client. Because of this, I am extremely careful. I’ve only been fooled once in the last many years. It was a Confederate uniform that already had a dye analysis and a letter of authenticity from someone who at that time was considered an authority. I trusted the paperwork. I should have had my own dye analysis done because that too can be faked, and in this case it had been. When I got around to testing the uniform, it had synthetic dye—a dead giveaway.
What are the most rare and expensive items you have sold?
There was a group of things relating to Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, which I tracked down from three different sources. The first was a very elegant sword said to have been presented to Stuart by the Prussian volunteer with the Army of Northern Virginia, Heros von Borcke. It had been sold from the possessions of an aged woman with a Stuart family connection. After much research, and a few sleepless nights, I fully documented it as Stuart’s. The next piece was a Confederate battle flag...sewn by General Stuart’s wife and daughter for him. I was eventually able to purchase that. The third item was a gem—the daily field dispatch book used by Stuart during the war. The last entry is written one hour before he was mortally wounded in May, 1864 at Yellow Tavern, outside Richmond. I eventually sold the flag for more than $1 million. The sword and dispatch book went for well above $1 million.