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Judge Criticizes Navy But Says Bell From CSS Alabama Belongs To Government

May 13, 1991

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ The bell from a Confederate warship, the CSS Alabama, belongs to the U.S. Navy, but the government was wrong in not compensating the man who found the relic, a federal judge ruled today.

An antique arms dealer and the federal government have been fighting for months over who owns the bell.

The Alabama, described as the most feared Confederate ship, was captured in 1864 by the USS Kearsarge and scuttled in 240 feet of water near the French port of Cherbourg.

The bell was salvaged in 1936 by a fisherman from the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel, said Richard J. Steinmetz, a Westwood antique dealer.

He said he paid $12,000 in cash and goods in 1979 for the bell, which had been hanging for years in an English pub. Steinmetz said he offered the bell to the U.S. Naval Academy 10 years ago, seeking $12,000 in compensation simply to cover his costs, but was turned down.

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

Lawyers for the government argued that the bell rightly belonged to the Navy, and that they could not pay Steinmetz because it would set a dangerous precedent and encourage others to try to salvage Navy vessels.

U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise said the Navy should compensate Steinmetz for the cost of recovering and preserving the bell.

″This isn’t the can-do spirit I want to attribute to the Navy,″ the judge said.

But he said the law was on the government’s side by right of capture, even though it sank the captured vessel, and as the legal successor to the Confederate government.

He ordered the bell handed over to the Navy, with no compensation to Steinmetz.

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

An government lawyer refused to comment outside of court.

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