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Family cries foul over sale of sword

A direct descendant of Albany’s first mayor, Captain William Finlay, believes Albany Historical Society sold an historic sword which was linked to his family.

Les Finlay has been joined by members of WA’s antiquities community who believe the AHS sold Capt. William Finlay’s sword to a military auction company.

Capt. Finlay, a former police officer, was elected as Albany’s inaugural mayor in 1885 and founded the region’s first military presence in 1878, the Albany Rifle Volunteers.

After Finlay’s death in 1886, the sword he used during his time as the Albany Rifle Volunteers’ commanding officer was passed down through generations of the Finlay family.

After falling into the hands of Mabel Gladys Raphael Baxter, Capt. Finlay’s granddaughter, the sword was donated to Plantagenet Historical Society in March 1970, before being given to Albany Historical Society weeks later.

For decades, it was thought the AHS held the sword, loaning it to the City of Albany’s Princess Royal Fortress Military Museum, where it was on display as recently as 2016, before it was returned to the AHS.

While on display at the Princess Royal Fortress Military Museum, it was presented as Capt. Finlay’s sword.

It is understood that in November, 2016, the AHS invited Jamey Blewitt, owner of JB Military Antiques, to Albany to inspect a number of artefacts in its collection for sale at a shed near Albany Regional Airport.

The sword in question was one of many items bought by Mr Blewitt during his visit to Albany, a transaction later investigated by the WA Police Major Fraud Squad.

WA Police confirmed yesterday the fraud squad had investigated but found no evidence of criminal activity.

In March, 2017, the sword appeared on the JB Military Antiques website, listed for a public auction due to be held on April 30, 2017.

“This sword was formerly the property of a well-known Western Australian historical group, whose paperwork shows this sword to be formerly the property of Captain W. Finlay, who was the commanding officer of the Albany Rifle Volunteers, as well as being the first Mayor of Albany,” the item’s online description said.

“This historically important sword is not only rare based on the association with William Finlay, but there would scarcely be more than a handful of attributed swords to this unit in either private or museum collections.”

Days before the auction was due to be held, the listing came to the attention of one of Capt. Finlay’s direct descendants, Les Finlay.

“When I first saw that the sword was up for auction, I reached out to the AHS to find out how it had come to be in the public auction,” Mr Finlay said.

“It was only a few days before the auction was due to be held, it was only a very small time frame for me to go and get it pulled.”

Mr Finlay approached the AHS and JB Military Antiques in a desperate attempt to stop what he believed was his family heirloom moving out of the State.

His efforts were in vain, however, and the public auction went ahead, with the sword selling for $5000.

Unknowingly, Mr Finlay ended up bidding for the sword against another West Australian eager to keep the artefact in the State — Paul Bridges, a former deputy curator at the WA Army Museum.

“When I saw the sword come up at auction, I was really concerned that such a significant piece of WA history would leave the State, so I decided I’d buy it to keep it here,” Mr Bridges said.

Mr Finlay said he understood museums and historical societies had a lot of items to look after, but he did not understand the decision to sell what he believed was his forebear’s sword.

“I understand that museums, they end up having a burden of keeping all these items in their collection, they’re responsible for the upkeep of it, looking after it, and people will bump a lot of things,” Mr Finlay said.

“But I thought it was ridiculous for them to even make the decision that it had no relevance to their collection.”

Mr Bridges said he believed the sword had significant historical value not only to Albany but to WA.

However, AHS chief executive Andrew Eyden said the sword that went up for auction in April, 2017 was not Capt. Finlay’s original service weapon.

“The original sword was stolen, we believe between July and August, 1976,” Mr Eyden told the Advertiser last week.

“It (the sword sold in April, 2017) was another sword of that period, that had origins from Perth — nothing to do with Albany.

“They were common officers’ swords of the day. They were mass-produced, basically.”

Mr Eyden’s claims surprised by Mr Finlay, Mr Bridges and a prominent member of Albany’s military history community, who did not want to be named.

Albany Histrorical Society's ANdrew EydenAlbany Histrorical Society's ANdrew Eyden
Camera IconAlbany Histrorical Society’s ANdrew EydenPicture: Sara Cross

Accession documents obtained by the Advertiser appear to show the AHS declared the sword to be Capt. Finlay’s in 1990.

Curtin University senior lecturer Dr Pauline Joseph , who has written papers on such cases of de-accessioning, said there was a grey area in legislation.

“There is a gap in the jurisdiction to solve matters like this,” Dr Joseph said.

“There’s nowhere the community could go to seek a legal ruling for something that relates to their family heritage.”

Dr Joseph said even if the actions of museums and historical societies were disagreeable to some, they were not necessarily illegal.

Capt. Finlay now rests in the Albany Memorial Park Cemetery.

Last year, the City of Albany marked his grave with a headstone after research conducted by retired District Police Supt Mervyn Pegler.

“At 46 years of age, the things he did in his lifetime were just amazing. He was one of the youngest commissioned officers ever in WA at just 25 years old — that is just incredible,” Mr Pegler said.

Albany Mayor Dennis Wellington and Mervyn Pegler at Capt. Finlay’s grave last year.Albany Mayor Dennis Wellington and Mervyn Pegler at Capt. Finlay’s grave last year.
Camera IconAlbany Mayor Dennis Wellington and Mervyn Pegler at Capt. Finlay’s grave last year.Picture: Albany Advertiser, Laurie Benson

The City of Albany declined to comment.

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