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Judge Criticizes Navy But Awards It Bell From CSS Alabama

May 13, 1991

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ The bell from a Confederate warship belongs to the Navy and not the antiques dealer who found it in a British shop, a judge decided Monday.

The judge, however, criticized the Navy for not compensating the dealer for expenses, but said he could not order any payment.

″You expect this to happen in a communist country, not in the United States,″ antiques dealer Richard J. Steinmetz said outside court. ″This was organized rip-off.″

The bell came from the cruiser CSS Alabama, terror of Union shipping during the Civil War until the U.S. Navy captured and sank it in the English Channel.

Steinmetz, a dealer from Westwood, had said he would gladly turn over the bell if compensated for his costs - he paid a British dealer $12,000 for the relic.

He said he offered to sell or trade the bell to the U.S. Naval Academy 10 years ago, but the academy wasn’t interested.

In December, federal authorities sued for possession of the bell after Steinmetz listed it for auction with a New York gallery, where he received bids of up to $40,000.

During settlement negotiations, the government offered him rusted sawed-off shotguns and small handguns, worth nothing, Steinmetz said.

U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise ruled Monday that, by law, the bell is federal property because it captured the ship and because the United States is the successor to all rights and property of the Confederate government.

But the judge also said that ″fundamental fairness″ dictated the government compensate Steinmetz.

″The Navy, for all its ingeniousness and ability, is unable to break the bureaucratic logjams,″ Debevoise said. ″This isn’t the can-do spirit I want to attribute to the Navy.″

″You could just give him some cold cash for the amount of money he is out of pocket,″ Debevoise said.

Steinmetz will have to savor the ″psychic compensation″ of thanks from U.S. citizens for saving the bell, the judge said.

Mark Shaefer, a government attorney representing the Navy, had argued that paying Steinmetz for the bell would set a dangerous precedent and encourage others to scavenge sunken ships, which he described as sacred tombs for fallen sailors.

An attorney for Steinmetz, Antranig Aslanian Jr., argued that the government’s refusal to pay could ultimately cost it other artifacts.

″What’s going to happen next time somebody finds something out of country?″ he asked the judge, adding that they would be afraid to bring it to the United States because it could be taken from them.

The Alabama was launched in 1862 at Liverpool, England. It was armed in the Azores and began raiding Northern shipping.

The Alabama, commanded by Capt. Raphael Semmes, destroyed or captured 64 commercial ships. Many carried whale oil, on which Northern factories depended for fuel and lubrication.

On June 19, 1864, Semmes battled with the USS Kearsarge, captained by John Winslow, Semmes’ cabinmate from the Mexican-American War.

The Kearsarge, whose hull was reinforced on the inside with heavy chain, thrashed the Alabama in about an hour. Semmes ran up the white flag and the crew abandoned the ship minutes before it sank in 240 feet of water near the French port of Cherbourg.

The bell was salvaged in 1936 by a fisherman. He took it back to the Channel Island of Guernsey, where it hung for years in a pub. Bartenders scarred it by whacking it with an ice pick to sound ″last call.″

The bar was bombed by the Germans in World War II and the bell passed through several hands, eventually reaching an antiques dealer in Hastings, where Steinmetz found it 1978.

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