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Buyer Balks at Pentagon Flag's Authenticity, Withdraws Offer

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page B08

The winning eBay bidder who pledged Monday to pay $371,300 for an American flag that reportedly flew over the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, has told the seller he is not convinced it's authentic and will not honor the sale.

The flag's owner, David Nicholson, 44, of Orange, Va., said he reached the buyer -- whom he identified as Todd Schimmel of Minnesota -- by phone several hours after the auction's close.

"He said he got an e-mail from someone saying the flag wasn't flying [at the Pentagon] on 9/11 and he wasn't taking it," Nicholson said yesterday. "Then he hung up."

But Nicholson, a cancer patient who said he was forced to sell the flag to support his family, said he wasn't sure whether the sale fell through because of questions about its authenticity or because the bid was a hoax.

Schimmel did not respond to a telephone message left yesterday at his home or an e-mail sent Monday night to his eBay account.

Since the auction was posted 10 days ago, the flag's authenticity has been the subject of much discussion, particularly among survivors of Sept. 11 victims who denounced the sale as "immoral." They warned that such a sale would set a precedent for Sept. 11 profiteers looking to cash in on artifacts both real and fraudulent.

Last night, Nicholson reopened the flag auction on eBay for three days. This time, he instituted a more strenuous approval process for bidders and included information on the allegations that the banner is not bona fide.

"We'll let the buyer decide on their own what the value of the flag is," said Shawn Peacher, who was hired by Nicholson to run the auction.

Nicholson, who once ran an auction house in Orange, said the flag was given to him in 2002, along with other used construction items for disposal or sale, by Pete Elliot, a supervisor for Facchina Construction Co., which was working at the Pentagon. Nicholson said Elliot supplied a letter of authenticity, certifying that the flag was flying from one of its cranes during the attack.

Nicholson said he had not intended to sell the flag but changed his mind when his advanced kidney cancer was diagnosed.

Shortly after the eBay auction opened, Nicholson said Elliot asked him to return the letter of authenticity, saying the company had reprimanded him for writing it. Elliot has declined to comment on the letter and yesterday referred calls to his attorney.

Seven days into the auction, Facchina posted a statement on its Web site saying that it had neither a crane nor a flag at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Other workers on the scene have since stepped forward to make the same claim.

Nicholson said Facchina has known about the flag since he was featured on CNN in 2002. He has accused the company of ruining his auction to preserve its image and its access to valuable government contracts. Company officials have said they are trying to clear the record of false information.

Debra Burlingame, whose brother was killed at the Pentagon, said yesterday that eBay is shirking its moral responsibility to the public by allowing a "fraudulent" auction to proceed -- and that Congress should hold it accountable.

But Nicholson remained determined. "I said the flag was there on September 11, and no one has proved otherwise," he said yesterday. "If the flag only brings $100,000, I'll be looking to Pete Elliot and Facchina for the balance."

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