By Richard Jerome
August 02, 1999 12:00 PM

As a boy in Wilmington, N.C., George Edward “Ed” Pickett V cringed when teachers pointed out that his great-great-grandfather was one of American history’s storied flops. On July 3, 1863, Confederate General George E. Pickett led a courageous but disastrous assault on Union troops at the Battle of Gettysburg, which wiped out his division and turned the tide of the Civil War. “I would kind of duck my head,” says Pickett.

But by the fall of 1995 he was looking more kindly on his legacy. Representing the planned National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa., appraiser Russ Pritchard offered to buy some Pickett heirlooms, among them a portrait of the general, a bloody uniform sleeve and a lock of hair. All told, Pritchard paid $87,500 and threw in a monthlong vacation in Costa Rica for Pickett, his wife, Jo, and their four children. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, college for the kids, pay some bills,’ ” says Ed, 44, a contractor and yoga teacher.

In fact, the sale was yet another folly in Pickett annals. More than two years later, the couple were stunned to learn that Pritchard had resold the artifacts to the city of Harrisburg for a whopping $870,000. All the more painful was that the appraiser, now a regular on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, had seemingly befriended them. “When you’ve been swindled by someone you trusted, you feel like, ‘Gee, I don’t know who’s real and who isn’t,’ ” says Ed. “He was a smooth operator.”

Not, in the end, smooth enough. The Picketts sued for breach of contract and fraud, and on June 11 a federal jury in Philadelphia ordered Pritchard and his appraisal firm, the American Ordnance Preservation Association, to pay $800,000 in damages. Pickett also won exclusive publication rights to the general’s papers and photos, worth an estimated $600,000. Harrisburg retains the artifacts, which will be displayed when the museum opens next year. Mayor Stephen R. Reed said he had no idea Pritchard had kept the money from the sale. “We were flabbergasted,” he says. “I had assumed Pickett got a substantial amount.”

Pritchard’s attorney Emanuel Kapelsohn plans to appeal the decision, saying AOPA paid what Pickett had asked. He also claimed that AOPA had spent more than 12,000 hours on research, travel and restoration, and “took the risk of whether the stuff would turn out to be authentic…and [that] the city of Harrisburg would be willing to buy it.” Now cautious, Pickett isn’t spending the money just yet. “It’s been a wild ride,” he says, “and I’m just going to ride it.”

Growing up, Pickett showed little interest in the suitcase of heirlooms that his divorced mother, Wilna, a teacher, kept in the attic. Not entirely without a sense of tradition, he entered West Point, following in the footsteps of his Army colonel father, George IV, and the old general himself, who finished last in the class of 1846. Ed dropped out after 11 weeks, then earned a B.A. in fine arts at the University of the South in Tennessee. In 1989 he married Jo, a surfing instructor, now 43.

It was in the fall of 1995 that Pritchard first called. “We weren’t remotely looking to sell,” says Jo. But Pritchard ingratiated himself, treating the family to lunch, attending Ed’s yoga class and rooting for Jo in a surfing contest. Ed recalls that when Pritchard handed over a first check for the heirlooms, he said, “I’ve gone over the value a bit, but because you’re my friend, I can do this.”

During the next two years, Pickett kept in touch with Pritchard, discussing a possible publishing deal. Then, in June 1998, he attended a seminar at Gettysburg National Park. Casually he asked historian Earl Coates the value of the general’s embroidered cap, which he’d sold to Pritchard for $3,000. “I said, ‘Up to $100,000,’ ” says Coates. Coates asked around and learned that Pritchard had sold the collection for 10 times what he’d paid Pickett.

Aside from learning lessons in antiques and human nature, Pickett has gained respect for his much-maligned namesake. After all, the general, who sold insurance after the war and died at 50 in 1875, had acted on orders. “He was more a tragic hero than a disgrace,” Pickett says. “He led this charge, and the way it was done was glorious. The war was about honor—honor was more important than anything.”

Richard Jerome

Amy Laughinghouse in Wilmington and Matt Birkbeck in Philadelphia