“Why would a publisher invite a person convicted of federal crimes committed against the gun collecting community to write the foreword of a book directed at that very same community?” That is the question I asked Sandy See, the University of Oklahoma Press’ publicist, after I opened the package she had sent this past June containing the lavish, new hardcover book, A Legacy in Arms. Two days after I sent her the question, she simply replied via email, “I forwarded your concerns to the book’s editor who sent them on to author Richard Rattenbury.”
“Perhaps,” I thought, “she isn’t aware that the name on the cover — just below Rattenbury’s — was that of convicted criminal, Robert L. Wilson.” So, accompanying my email question, I included the link to the March 26, 2006, Hartford Courant article detailing the case that led to Wilson’s federal conviction and imprisonment after he plead guilty to defrauding a client (you may read the article here). But what I didn’t feel necessary to add was, the R.L. Wilson story didn’t end with that single 2006 case.
In fact, at the time of the conviction, Herbert Houze, himself a leading scholar in historic firearms and curator, admitted, “In the gun field, Wilson was top of the heap. He [Wilson] has done more for gun collecting in the United States than any person. He’s also done more against it. He got seduced by the dark side.”
In addition to the 2006 conviction, other stories about Wilson’s “reputation” seem to be abundant in the arms collecting world, some well-documented, while others remain anecdotal. One such documented case chronicles how Wilson was the “consultant” who engineered the removal of more than 300 guns from the Colt collection at the Museum of Connecticut History in Hartford in exchange for fewer than 20 firearms. When that scandal erupted in the late 1980s, investigators disagreed over whether Wilson’s trades were actually equivalent to a “plundering of the collection.”
So when I received the book with the name of a person on the cover who possesses such a murky past, I thought I owed it to the publisher to reach out for an explanation before considering to write and publish a review of the book. But now, more than six months have past, and I have received no further comment from University of Oklahoma Press or the author, Richard Rattenbury.
Without an explanation from them, I can’t recommend this book any more than I could recommend selling relics in a crime-infested neighborhood. Wilson is a convicted criminal who made his money by defrauding, misdirecting, and scamming collectors like you and me. Now, it appears, he is using the University of Oklahoma Press to reemerge as a “credible” authority. To what end? Is he planning another crime spree of defrauding collectors?
But to make the waters even muddier, it is remarkable that the author of A Legacy of Arms, Richard C. Rattenbury, is also the Curator of History at the prestigious National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum—a significant holder of priceless firearms. In fact, in the same 2006 Courant article, he stated, “Whenever I was around him [Wilson] I always ate well and enjoyed myself.” But most troubling was his statement, “He [Wilson] introduced me to a collector here, and ultimately after a decade of wooing, that collection came into the museum,”
Well, gee, it isn’t tough to figure out where the author stands on the question of using Wilson to endorse his book. It appears the curator / author is willing to dance with the devil as long as he gets what he wants.
All that said, I will admit, “I get it” The seduction of collectibles can often cloud one’s judgement. But that is why the hobby needs to rely on the publishers, the show promoters, and yes, the museum curators to exercise judgement, caution, and discretion when attempting to promote the hobby and preservation of history through artifacts. Too often, in our hobby, we seem to turn a blind eye to shady dealings, inappropriate behavior, or even criminal activity. But when an internationally recognized university press turns a blind eye to the criminal past of one its contributors, they are simply endorsing the behavior and opening the door to even more fraud. What kind of stewardship of scholarship and collecting is that?
It doesn’t matter how gorgeous the binding or how engaging the photographs are in A Legacy of Arms. The name, “R.L. Wilson” on the cover discredits this book–and our hobby. As far as his writing about or dealing in historic relics go, my opinion is that there are no second chances. R.L. Wilson defrauded collectors to pad his own pockets. Just because he “served his time,” should not restore him to the position to ever participate as a legitimate representative of any facet of the historic firearms collecting community. As my grandmother used to say to me, “You can’t change the stripes on a skunk…and it wouldn’t matter—he would still stink.”
She would have pulled out one of her other favorite quotes in regard to the lack of communication from the author and the publisher: “There is a lot to be heard in the silence.”
Preserve the memories, protect our history.
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine