BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An Alabama collector says he bought a unique Civil War jacket fair and square, and he's waging a court fight against the leaders of a Confederate memorial museum who say it was stolen from the New Orleans facility decades ago.
Joe Fitzgerald of Huntsville said in a legal complaint filed last month in Madison County Circuit Court that he paid $44,500 for a coat that had belonged to Confederate Army Capt. William Lyman at a Civil War history and memorabilia convention in Nashville in 2009.
But after a representative of the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans called in January saying he was in Alabama searching for a stolen jacket and wanted to arrange a meeting, Fitzgerald decided to ask the court for a declaratory judgment naming him as the jacket's owner.
The frock coat was tailored out of homemade jeans by a blind woman from Highland County, Virginia, and was sent to Lyman when he was commanding a company of Virginia infantry soldiers, Keith Cangelosi president of Memorial Hall Museum Inc., said in an affidavit. Memorial Hall Museum, Inc. operates the 125-year-old Confederate museum.
Officials there have said Lyman donated the jacket to the museum after the war. The museum's exhibits feature flags, weapons, personal items, uniforms and more.
"This frock coat was stolen from the museum at some point in time and an inventory of uniforms conducted by the museum indicated that the uniform had gone missing prior to 1990," Cangelosi said in the affidavit.
The museum representative contacted Fitzgerald after photos of the jacket appeared in a magazine, Fitzgerald's attorney said.
Attorney John Hughston said Fitzgerald has offered to return the jacket to the museum if he's shown proof that the museum ever owned the garment. But he said there is none.
"There's no paperwork anywhere that we're aware of that would indicate that it was misappropriated or appropriated by anybody. They can't show who they got it from, or when they got it," Hughston said, adding that the museum hasn't produced a police report or inventory list proving it ever owned Lyman's jacket.
"We don't even think it's the same coat. How many Civil War coats were made during that timeframe?" Hughston said. "To have a museum pop up 30 years later and make some claim without any proof to it, I think that's unfair."
The jacket had at least two previous owners before Fitzgerald bought it, according to his complaint.
New Orleans attorney Eades Hogue represents the museum and declined to comment on the dispute. Phone messages left for Cangelosi and Fitzgerald were not returned.
Although Fitzgerald's complaint was filed in state court, Cangelosi said in the affidavit that he estimates the jacket is worth more than $75,000 and attorneys for the museum last week asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama to handle the case.
Hughston disputes Cangelosi's estimate and said he'll look to have the case returned to Madison County.