On Tuesday morning, as Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert was delivering an emotional speech in support of committing $25 million in county funds for a “world class” Alamo museum, mail carriers around San Antonio and the state were delivering copies of Texas Monthly magazine with a cover story that amounts to a cannon shot at the massive collection of Alamo memorabilia that has been framed as the foundation of a major new museum.
The cover is striking. It features an ancient cannon against a solid burnt orange background, with whiffs of smoke surrounding its mouth. Above it, in large black capital letters is a play on a slogan familiar to Texas history buffs. The copy reads: “COME AND FAKE IT?”
Below the cannon is the cover story’s theme: “State officials want to spend $300 million to house Phil Collins’ Alamo Memorabilia. But the most-ballyhooed items may not be what they seem.”
The lengthy article, posted online Wednesday, is based on a chapter of the new book Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. The article delves deep into stories behind such items billed as possibly being Jim Bowie’s and William Barret Travis’ knives and Davy Crockett’s shot pouch. (I wrote about the book, written by Houston Chronicle and Express-News business columnist Chris Tomlinson, Barbarians at the Gate author Bryan Burrough, and Jason Stanford, a former Moscow-based reporter for the Los Angeles Times, back in April. I and others who received advance copies had to promise not to write about this chapter.)
Interviewing both the men who sold Collins the items and experts in the field, the authors uncovered considerable skepticism about the authenticity of much of the British rock musician’s collection.
One seller told the authors he confirmed other evidence regarding a knife attributed as belonging to Bowie by taking it to a psychic.
The multimillion-dollar collection amassed over decades by Collins played a major role in the genesis of the museum. It began in a back room of the now-defunct El Mirador restaurant, a favorite of Collins.
In 2011, after taking control of the Alamo away from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and giving it to the office of the Texas Land Commissioner, the Legislature gave then-Commissioner Jerry Patterson $6.5 million for repairs and maintenance that had long been neglected. An Alamo buff himself, he wanted to do much more than repair the Alamo. He wanted to lift it from its status as a perennial disappointment to visitors and envisioned, in the words of the book’s authors, “a first-rate historical museum and an expansion of the site that would approximate the 1836 footprint of the fort – an area that currently houses, among other things, T-shirt vendors and a wax museum, the kinds of fringe businesses found on the Las Vegas Strip or Bourbon Street.”
Kaye Tucker, a mid-level staffer at the General Land Office (GLO), was to assist with fulfilling Patterson’s dream. In her work, she came to know Jim Guimarin, who had helped Collins amass his collection through his role as owner of the History Shop, a tourist venue near the Alamo. In 2014, Tucker found herself with Guimarin picking up Collins at the Hyatt Regency and heading to El Mirador.
Dining in a small back room, toward the end of the meal Tucker shyly told Collins she knew he was looking for a home for his collection and asked if he would consider her agency. He asked where the GLO would put it. She told him of the Land Office’s plans for the Alamo and said a collection like his would help raise the millions of dollars necessary for a museum.
“I feel like a dog with two tails,” said Collins. Not familiar with the British expression, she asked if that was good. “Oh, absolutely,” he said.
A week later, Patterson met with Collins at the Alamo offices. Collins said he wanted his entire collection displayed in one building. Patterson agreed and they forged a three-page contract that committed the state to completing a “schematic phase of build-out” on a “permanent museum and visitor center” by October 2021.
It may be a challenge to meet that deadline, but Alamo officials say Collins is happy with a recent announcement that the state is building a new exhibition hall on the Alamo grounds that will house his collection until the museum is built. In addition, Alamo officials announced Tuesday a general plan for the museum that will incorporate and save the Woolworth building and will include a presentation of its role in the peaceful desegregation of San Antonio’s downtown lunch counters.
Alamo officials have repeatedly promised a “world class” museum, but it is a rare museum that would promise to display an entire donated collection without an independent expert assessment of the collection’s contents. The book and Texas Monthly cover story suggest that the Collins collection would not fare well in such a process.
The authors’ examination began with a skirmish with current Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Bush’s office refused to release copies of the receipt books that documented descriptions of items in the collection. Only after the authors won an appeal to the attorney general’s office under the state’s Open Records Act did the GLO release them, blacking out the prices Collins paid.
Most of the receipts included “certificates of authenticity” that were signed by Sam Nesmith, a former curator at the Alamo and a longtime staffer at the Institute of Texan Cultures. The authors describe many of the certificates as “a master class in how to weave compelling tales with carefully hedged language.
“Nesmith’s certificates begin with detailed professional descriptions of the objects, then launch into prosaic storytelling,” the authors write. “He is particularly vague about certifying a shot pouch said to have belonged to Crockett, which Collins bought from Guimarin in 2009. In his write-up, Nesmith uses many passive sentences and avoids an explanation for his attribution. The pouch, Nesmith wrote, “was recovered from the personal effects of Colonel José Enrique de la Peña,” who died in 1840, four years after the Battle of the Alamo. Nesmith wrote it was listed in a probate inventory of the colonel’s estate, and “these items were given to Don José Enrique de la Peña, while serving at the Alamo during the war in Texas, by ‘D’ David Croquet in appreciation of de la Peña’s attempts to save his life.’”
Let’s leave aside the fact that such an account favors those who believe Crockett was captured rather than heroically going down fighting like John Wayne or Fess Parker in their portrayals of him. The book authors write: “Every Alamo-head is aware of the probate document, but how does Nesmith know this particular pouch is the one mentioned in the document, the pouch that belonged to Crockett? He never explains.”
The authors cite a “similarly fanciful certification of the knife said to belong to Travis.” The certification is by memorabilia dealer Alex McDuffie and Nesmith, who mentored McDuffie. “Collectively, an unbiased conclusion can be drawn that the [lot] is true Texana material,” the certificate says. “More importantly, when considered as a whole, research into the clues left behind on each artifact suggests a common point of origin, a definite association with a specific individual within a very narrow historic window; the attribution is solid and beyond probability.”
The authors conclude: “Nothing in the five-page certificate offers proof for any such claim.”
The authors write that Nesmith made a strong impression on McDuffie by encouraging him to “trust your gut” when assessing the authenticity of items. But apparently Nesmith himself sometimes thought more exotic backup was useful.
“Nesmith’s oddest testament,” the authors write, “is reserved for the Musso Bowie knife.” Los Angeles collector Joseph Musso owned what he believes to be James Bowie’s personal knife. Through the years Musso had hired metallurgists to test the knife and they found it to be from the right period and made of appropriate materials.
“Musso decided to take the knife to a psychic,” the authors wrote. “But because, he says, he doesn’t really believe in the paranormal, he wanted the best: Peter Hurkos, a Dutch clairvoyant who claimed a head injury had given him special powers. ‘I figured he was the only one I could believe in because he was decorated by a Catholic pope and he was supposed to have an eighty-seventh-percentile degree of accuracy.’”
The authors cite an essay by Nesmith accompanying the authentication document titled “Sam’s Psychic Impressions on J B’s Knife.”
“In this performance Nesmith channels the story of a young Mexican soldier discovering a brass-back knife after the Battle of the Alamo and his sergeant confiscating it,” the authors write. “The sergeant’s commander then takes it for himself. And so this tall tale goes on, until the knife ends up in California (which is where Musso bought it at a gun show). Another supposed authenticator, described as ‘a descendant of one of the martyrs of the Alamo and a forensics analyst,’ offered what he called his ‘independent psychic impression.’ He declared, ‘There is an incredibly overpowering sadness associated with the knife.’”
But it was master psychic Hurkos’ performance that most impressed Russo: “Hurkos, who had worked on the Charles Manson and Boston Strangler cases, agreed to a meeting, Musso says. After Musso handed him a brown paper bag with the knife inside, Hurkos reportedly named the man who had sold the knife to Musso. Musso says he then laid out several photos facedown and Hurkos pointed at one, which Musso then flipped over. It was Bowie’s portrait; Hurkos declared the knife had belonged to him. To Musso, this was just another piece of evidence that would help him build a case for authentication.”
McDuffie persuaded Russo to sell the knife to Collins for a rumored $1.5 million. McDuffie is convinced it is authentic but, the authors report, “Guimarin is more circumspect.”
“Is it the same kind of knife that he used? Yes, it is. But is it the knife? I don’t know,” he told them.
The authors believe the Collins collection has some very strong material, especially a large number of historic documents. But the alleged possessions of the big-name heroes are suspect. Authentication of Alamo objects are particularly difficult, they write, and there is often bad blood among dealers.
But the authors found supporting doubts from independent experts. Bruce Winders, the highly regarded official historian and curator of the Alamo from 1996 to 2019, was one to express skepticism.
“Bells? All the bells. Yeah, kind of like Notre Dame,” he said of items presented by McDuffie. “People are amazed at some of the artifacts he comes up with. How does he find so many choice artifacts?”
When the Collins collection arrived, Winders said, “It was kind of painful because I was finding things that were somewhat disturbing,” he remembers. “What I saw were items that said they were of this type and that they could’ve been at the Alamo.”
But the authors wrote that Winders repeatedly found no documentation placing items at the battle.
“There’s enough to make you think that there is some deception going on here,” Winders told them.
The authors don’t indicate Collins himself is intentionally deceptive. He is a generous donor and passionate Alamo aficionado, infected as a youth by the film version of the story. But when he produced a coffee table book of photographs of his collection called The Alamo and Beyond in 2012, it was met with “profound skepticism” by many experts, report the authors.
They quote Thomas Nuckols, an Alamo expert who volunteers as an archaeological expert for the Texas Historical Commission: “Just about everything they said was used at the Alamo – these are not Alamo-related items. A lot of us enjoyed the book just because of the silliness of it.”
The collection will be noteworthy, though the museum directors will invite international derision if they make the collection the museum’s centerpiece with claims that are unwarranted. For recent examples they can Google stories about recent scandals at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.; the Terrus Museum in Elne, France; and the Mexican Museum of San Francisco.
Ironically, the concerns raised by the authors could meld with the $25 million contribution pledged by the Commissioners Court and with strong commitments by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the City Council members to present a broader, more accurate story of the Alamo than that presented both by Hollywood and early historians.
Calvert’s emotional speech was inspired by the fact that his ancestors include both and slaveholders and their enslaved “chattel.” He wants the robust role of slavery in the Texas Revolution included, just as many of the Mexican Americans who make up the majority of Bexar County want an accurate history that doesn’t demonize their ancestors.
There was a good sign at the Commissioners Court meeting. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who in the past has pushed for a total focus on the 13-day-battle and has pledged to seek hundreds of millions of dollars for the project – including $50 million from the Legislature – sounded open to a more comprehensive focus.
Appearing at the meeting via videoconference along with Bush, Patrick said the museum and site will focus “on that battle, because when people come to the Alamo, that’s what they know most about” but added, “we’re going to tell the whole story as well.”
San Antonio is unlikely to forget the Alamo, but neither will we forget what we’ll take as Patrick’s pledge.