From the Archives: The Fall of Michael Hurwitz

Eric Lyttle
Michael Hurwitz in the Legends Gallery in 1994

Editor’s note: This September 1997 Columbus Monthly feature offers the inside story of the Ponzi scheme operated by prominent Columbus collectibles dealer Michael Hurwitz, who was sentenced to three years of prison on felony theft and fraud charges in 1998.

Bob Marvin wasn't looking forward to New Year's Eve, 1978. The man who for more than 25 years entertained Central Ohio residents as WBNS-TV's “Flippo the Clown" was beginning to understand why some refer to Dec. 31 as the loneliest night of the year. Marvin and his 8-year-old daughter, Amy, were facing their first New Year's Eve alone together in the aftermath of a failed marriage. 

But a friend came to the rescue, insisting the Marvins join his family for dinner at Fisherman's Wharf on Morse Road. "I'll never forget that night, 19 years ago," says Marvin. "We met them there he and his wife, and mother and father. Amy was all dressed up, with baby's breath in her hair. She looked delightful. From that night on, he and I were like brothers.” 

But now, 19 years later, Marvin is experiencing a loneliness again, confused and feeling betrayed by that same friend, Michael Hurwitz. And Hurwitz, until recently a dealer in autographs, rare manuscripts and antiquities, is feeling ... who knows what? He's awaiting trial on 19 felony charges, accused of scamming Marvin and other friends and associates out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in multiple investment schemes. 

Hurwitz, now 50, once was a Republican up-and-comer, an endorsed GOP candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives. He was honored as one of the city's top volunteers by Mayor Dana “Buck” Rinehart, a friend and political ally. In recent years Hurwitz operated the Legends Gallery on High Street in the Short North, buying and selling a wide range of celebrity collectibles and historic documents. He seemed to know his business well, and he returned quick profits to investors who bought into some of his deals. 

But last April 29 Hurwitz suddenly disappeared from Columbus, spreading ripples of alarm among his investors, some of whom already were worried that all was not as it should be. Three days later, Hurwitz's wife, Jacquie, filed a missing person report with police, a report that ultimately led to Hurwitz's arrest on May 8. According to Columbus police detective Robert Rothwell, Hurwitz had driven to Toronto, flown to the British Isles, flown back to Toronto and was attempting to drive back into the United States when he was picked up by U.S. Customs officials at the Niagara Falls border.

On July 11 Hurwitz was charged with 12 counts of theft and seven counts of forgery for allegedly orchestrating schemes to bilk investors including a state representative, a former top Rinehart aide, Columbus' director of development, former media personalities, business owners and executives. Most of Hurwitz's alleged victims, according to police and prosecutors, thought they were investing in the purchase of an original Japanese Instrument of Surrender, the official document that ended World War II. That document, according to Hurwitz's indictment, was a forgery.

In addition Hurwitz, his wife Jacqueline and their business entities variously are facing civil suits filed by eight investors who claim to have been defrauded. Hurwitz has pleaded not guilty to all the criminal charges. No criminal charges have been filed against Jacqueline Hurwitz. 

According to signed joint venture, agreements on file in court records, investors were to contribute thousands of dollars, which would be combined with capital from Hurwitz for the purchase of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. Hurwitz would then resell the document at a great profit, and the proceeds would be split between the two parties. Allegedly, virtually every investor was led to believe he and Hurwitz would own 100 percent of the deal. Police now say Hurwitz was selling the same interest in the same document over and over again, all over town.

In most cases, investors say Hurwitz told them the wealthy Forbes family had agreed to purchase the document for a price in excess of $1 million. Hurwitz even showed investors copies of letters purportedly written by 1996 presidential candidate Steve Forbes and his brother, Robert Forbes. 

A spokeswoman for the Forbes family says those letters were faked, and one of the 19 criminal charges against Hurwitz is that he forged a Forbes letter. “There were six or seven core letters and a lot of variations on those used," says David Buchman, an assistant Franklin County prosecuting attorney. “There are other letters from Forbes we believe were forged, but we do have an obligation to trees, not to kill too many of them in writing indictments against Hurwitz."

The Japanese surrender document wasn't the only proposition offered by Hurwitz. Investors were pitched to back Hurwitz's deals on collections of presidential and celebrity signatures, Lincoln assassination documents and a libretto allegedly signed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Were those documents genuine? Were the deals real? As of early August, Columbus police were still investigating. 

Among those who invested with Hurwitz were:

  • Republican State Rep. E.J. Thomas, once a close friend of Hurwitz, who invested $30,000 in the surrender document; 
  • Richard Hillis, a former top Rinehart aide who now owns his own consulting firm, who invested $50,000 in the surrender document with business associate Brooke Cheney; 
  • George Arnold, Columbus' trade and development director and Mayor Greg Lashutka's former chief of staff, who, according to police reports, invested $10,000. Arnold won't confirm the amount or say what he invested in, though he does say it wasn't the surrender document;
  • Former television personality Jerry Beck, who claims in a civil suit to have lost $69,500 in four separate joint ventures involving the Instrument of Surrender, a collection of documents relating to the Lincoln assassination, a collection of signatures and photographs of movie stars and sports personalities and a collection of presidential signatures and documents;
  • Jeff Larger, president of NFS QAL Sales and Leasing, who invested $25,000 in a libretto dated 1773 and represented as having been signed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 

Like Marvin, most of those who backed Hurwitz viewed him not just as an expert in the autograph and document industry, but as a personal friend. Arnold had known him more than 20 years. David Weston, an East Side dentist who, according to court records, invested $21,500 in two separate deals, was Hurwitz's neighbor for 11 years. Larger says his grandmother has been a close friend of Jacqueline Hurwitz's mother for about 35 years. 

"I trusted him so implicitly, I didn't even question it," says Marvin, who declines to say how much money he invested with Hurwitz. "If you go through life and you have five really good friends, you're a rich man. I think I had three, and he was one of them. He went to Cleveland with me when I had to bury my mother, for God's sake. We used to talk almost every day. I'd go down to the gallery and have lunch with him a couple times a week. I just don't understand it. It seems totally out of character. I miss him." 

E.J. Thomas never doubted Hurwitz when his friend of 15 years approached him in late September 1996, with a business proposition. "Let's have some 'real' fun and make some money," wrote Hurwitz in a fax to Thomas dated Sept. 25. Two days later, a joint venture agreement was signed. Thomas was to invest $30,000 and Hurwitz would invest $70,000 toward the purchase of "One of four known-to-exist original World War Two Surrender Documents, executed in September 1945, in the presence of, and with the participation of, Allied and Axis representatives aboard the Battleship U.S.S. Missouri." The asking price was to be not less than $250,000, with Thomas getting 30 percent of the profit. 

Not until seven months later did Thomas realize he may have been a pawn in what Rothwell calls Hurwitz's Ponzi Scheme—an investment swindle in which high profits are promised from fictitious sources, and early investors are paid off with funds raised from later ones. “That's exactly what he was doing," says Rothwell. "It's similar to that," says Hurwitz's attorney, Jerry Lippe. Hurwitz himself refused to be interviewed for this story. 

For years, Hurwitz appeared to be gunning to become a pillar of the Columbus community. In addition to running for the Ohio House in 1982, Hurwitz was named to the "Mayor's Volunteer Honor Corps” in 1985 for coordinating the city's Fourth of July parade. He also headed a seven member search committee for a new executive director for the Capital Area Humane Society and was a longtime member of the Charity Newsies, along with Arnold. 

Hurwitz and his wife are members of the Stage Hands Union Local 12, helping set up and tear down shows in the various local theaters and convention halls, and together they hosted a radio call-in show, "There's Gold in Your Attic," on WCOL AM for about two years, right up until the time Jacquie called the station and said they would be unable to continue airing—the same week she called the police and filed a missing person report on her husband.

The Hurwitzes began dealing autographs and historical manuscripts through catalog sales more than 20 years ago. They also owned the Wall Flower Shop Downtown. They have owned the Legends Gallery at 668 N. High St. since 1994. "When he opened that gallery, it was his dream come true," says Marvin. "He told me, 'It took a lot of years with the flowers, but now I'm finally happy.' " 

Now Hurwitz could lose it all. The Legends Gallery is under the control of court appointed receiver A.C. Strip, and unless Hurwitz can somehow make restitution to all of his investors and other claimants, amounts totaling some $600,000, it's likely the contents of the gallery will be liquidated. And even if he manages to repay his debts, guilty or innocent, his reputation in the autograph field is probably ruined, as are a number of once-valued friendships. 

"The greatest sense of loss here is investing trust and friendship into someone you feel is honorable and trustworthy and then finding out he is neither," says Thomas.

Three days after signing his joint venture agreement, Hurwitz sent Thomas another fax. "What a day!" it said.“The bottomline is that the item is OURS!" 

"I love history, especially military history," says Thomas. "I think he thought, ‘Gosh. This is something E.J. would be very interested in.' " Thomas has a service record of 24 years, and is currently a squadron commander in the Air National Guard. And over the years, he's bought and sold items through Hurwitz's shop. "It was the first time he'd ever approached me with an investment," says Thomas. "But on other, very small deals, he'd always been fair and he'd always been up front. Because of that, I didn't check out his story."

By Oct. 10, Hurwitz had notified Thomas that a sale had been negotiated with the Forbes family in New York. On Oct. 21, Thomas received a copy of a letter to Hurwitz, on Forbes magazine letterhead, signed by "Robert S. Forbes, Vice President Publishing," stating, "The Forbes Foundation agrees to purchase the document known as the Presentation Copy of the Surrender Instrument of the Second World War, signed by the participants, for the sum of One Million-One Hundred Thousand Dollars." 

Over the next four months, a string of letters allegedly written between Hurwitz and Forbes postponed the conclusion of Thomas' deal. At one point, Thomas was even shown a copy of what looked like an official bank check issued from a Chase Manhattan branch at the corner of Madison Avenue and 52nd Street in New York City, supposedly drawn on a Forbes account and payable to Manuscript Acquisitions, another business name Hurwitz used. According to the indictment, the check was forged. 

By Hurwitz's 50th birthday party on March 1, at which Arnold, Beck and Thomas were among the 50 or 60 guests, Hurwitz had secured at least 12 different investors in the surrender document alone, as well as a handful of others who had put money into other deals. He found himself in the midst of a dangerous juggling act, trying to delay and mollify his investors, some of whom were becoming quite impatient. 

A note from Hurwitz to investor Frank Clay said, "One moment of patience may ward off great disaster, one moment of impatience may ruin a whole life." The note was dated April 18. Clay, president of Clay Associates advertising agency, had invested $15,000 in the surrender document nearly seven months earlier. Clay had run out of patience, and let Hurwitz know as much in a response, noting that he was now seeking legal counsel and adding, “I am disappointed that our transaction might come down to a distasteful ending, but you leave me no choice." 

Both Clay and Thomas had been told that Forbes had purchased the surrender document, but then returned it after deciding more information was needed. Hurwitz had issued Clay two checks $15,000 to repay his initial investment and $60,000 as a share of the profits—but then had asked that the checks not be cashed because deposits to cover them had not cleared. 

"I was at the end of my rope," says Clay. "I drove down to his gallery and took a lady friend of mine as a witness. He knew I was upset. He stood up, put his hand on his heart, and said, ‘My mother will give me the money and I'll have it for you tomorrow.' But by then, I just knew I'd never, ever see this money again." 

Even as he was attempting to hold off the angriest investors, Hurwitz continued to try to raise more funds. He approached Marvin on April 28 with one more deal, his fourth business proposition to his longtime friend. Hurwitz had actually paid Marvin on two previous deals. “The first one was that phony World War II surrender document." 

Marvin says, "I didn't even know other people were involved. I thought he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart. I said, 'I don't have that much, I don't want to take a chance.' And he says, 'It's like finding it in the street.’ " Marvin says after the first deal paid off (he declines to say how much money was involved), he invested in another offer. "I don't even know what it was," he says, but it returned about a 40 percent profit. "Anybody in the same position would have done the same thing—20-year friend who, as far as I know, was in that business making money. Invest once—boom, there's money. Invest twice—boom, there's money. He paid on the two smaller deals before hitting me with the big ones.” 

The third time Hurwitz approached Marvin was with a collection of presidential signatures. "He says, 'You put in $15,000 and I'll give you $30,000.' I never doubted the man's integrity," says Marvin.

But before the third deal was concluded, Hurwitz offered a fourth. “The last thing he wanted me to invest in was this Mozart thing," says Marvin. "He pulls it out and it's wrapped in heavy freezer-bag type material. It looked like a real authentic piece. He says, ‘You can take it out and look at it, but be careful.’ It's written in some foreign language, maybe Italian? He shows me some letter from some guy named Musik who says it's authentic. He says the guy is from D.C., and he did this freelance on the side as a favor because the government wouldn't approve of him authenticating documents. Plus, he shows me a letter from some museum somewhere, with the curator stating they were very impressed and that $150,000 was a fair price." 

“He says, 'You and I will invest $25,000 each and buy this, and split the profit.' I thought, 'Whoa, these are really big numbers. I don't know, Michael.' He says, 'You go home and think it over." " Marvin continues, "So I went home, thought about it, and called him the next day and said, 'I really don't want to do this.' You had to wait 30 or 40 days for the money, and I didn't have it. He said, ‘Come on down here for 15 minutes and let me talk to you.' I said, 'No, you're just going to try and convince me, and these numbers are just too big.' And the next day, he disappeared." 

On April 29, Hurwitz had agreed to meet at least two of the investors separately at his shop. Both were angry, and both planned to demand payment. When they arrived, however, the shop was locked and Hurwitz was gone. After filing a missing person report, Jacquie Hurwitz had the locks on the gallery changed, according to Strip. When news of Hurwitz's disappearance spread, investors began calling police. 

When U.S. Customs officials called on May 8 to say they'd stopped Hurwitz at the Canadian border, Columbus police asked Customs to hold him until a charge of criminal theft was filed: A copy of the surrender document, a copy of a Mozart libretto, an unspecified amount of cash and a 9 mm pistol were confiscated at the time, according to Rothwell. Hurwitz was charged in New York with possession of an unregistered firearm; Lippe says that charge has been dropped.

Marvin says he thinks Hurwitz was fleeing, knowing his deals were about to blow up. "When he was missing, I thought they'd find him in a remote woods somewhere with a bullet in his head,” says Marvin. "He has enough pride that I didn't think he'd survive it. I thought he'd kill himself." Thomas says he believes Hurwitwas stashing the investors' money in an overseas account. But Lippe says his client traveled to Toronto and an unspecified city in England because, “There were investors interested in the document in both cities.” 

"If Michael really wanted to screw these guys, why wouldn't he have stayed in Canada or England?" Lippe asks rhetorically.

That's exactly what the investors charge Hurwitz was trying to do. Exhibits in Thomas's civil suit file include 10 Forbes pieces of correspondence to Hurwitz—nine from “Robert S. Forbes" and one, dated Feb. 14, 1997, allegedly, from "Steven Forbes" apologizing for the delays in closing the sale and concluding, "It would be my pleasure to have you and Jacquie as my guest for lunch and we can catch up on the activities in the autograph community and then conclude our purchase. Too much time has passed since our last meeting and it will be wonderful to see you both." All the letters are apparently phony, according to Buchman.

Forbes spokesperson Elizabeth Ames says the flaws in the letters aren't hard to spot: Robert Forbes's middle initial is not S.; his middle name is Laidlaw. And Steve Forbes's given name is Malcolm Stephenson Forbes Jr. "Informally, he's sometimes called 'Steve,' but never ‘Steven,' ” Ames says.

A statement prepared for Columbus Monthly on behalf of Robert Forbes says, "Robert Forbes name has been used in a fraudulent and outrageous manner by an individual currently under criminal indictment. At no time has Mr. Forbes expressed any interest in a Japanese document of surrender. Nor has he engaged in correspondence about such a document."

A number of other investors received strings of letters similar to those in Thomas' file, and seldom was the same letter used twice. In addition to the Forbes letters, Hurwitz gave many of the surrender document investors a detailed provenance that included a color reproduction of the document, a 12-page outline of World War II events, including a detailed description of the actual surrender and an unsigned appraisal of authenticity, which states the surrender document allegedly in Hurwitz's possession was "originally owned by Captain Stuart S. Murray," the captain of the U.S.S. Missouri, upon which the surrender took place, "and was presented to him on September 2, 1945, personally by General Douglas MacArthur. Captain Murray maintained ownership of the item until it was presented to his son-in-law in 1971. It was held by the son-in-law until this date and time. This is the fourth presentation copy of the original seven that has been discovered within the past fifty-one years."

Hurwitz told some of his investors that Franklin Sherman McGeorge was the son-in-law's name. "He told me how Franklin McGeorge saw a story on Hurwitz in the Plain Dealer, and just walked in off the streets one day," says one investor who asked not to be identified. "He told me the story of Franklin marrying the daughter of the captain of the Missouri, and how Franklin now has cancer and just wants to move to Arizona to live out his days, and that he wants $100,000 for it."

But Suzanne Stroup of Arlington, Virginia, Capt. Murray's only daughter, says, "I've never heard of a McGeorge and there's no McGeorges in our family." She says her father, who died in 1980, had only two sons-in-law: Suzanne's first husband, Tom Brittain, who died in 1971, and Eugene Stroup, to whom she's been married since 1975. "And I never got married in my sleep, and I never had an affair with a McGeorge, or anyone else for that matter," she says.

Further, Stroup says her father never owned a copy of the surrender document. "No way did we ever have a piece of paper like that,” she says. “If he did, it would have been meticulously taken care of and he would have made sure we'd known about it. I was executor of his estate."

Rothwell says there's no such person as Franklin Sherman McGeorge, though there is a Sherman McGeorge, who lived in Columbus until early 1997 and had a brief business dealing with Hurwitz. Rothwell says the real McGeorge once took an autographed picture to the Legends Gallery, and Hurwitz sold it on consignment. "But he doesn't know of any surrender document, and he said he's never heard of Captain Murray," Rothwell says.

The National Archives supplied Rothwell with War Department records that state 11 copies of the surrender document were created originally by draftsmen. Only two were affixed with signatures: One of those now rests in the National Archives, while the other is in Tokyo. The other nine copies were presented, unsigned, to representatives of other countries on board the U.S.S. Missouri at the time of the surrender.

A number of photographic copies also were made of the original on the Missouri, according to Mike McReynolds of the National Archives, "How many of those were made? I have no idea," says McReynolds. The National Archives possesses the printing plates of the document, acquired from the Defense Department in the 1950s, and a number of reproductions also have been made from those plates over the years.

A copy of the purported surrender document was confiscated by Customs officials from Hurwitz at the time of his arrest in New York, and that document is now in the Columbus police department's possession. Lippe, Hurwitz's attorney, says, "The police really don't know what they have. The one the police have is not a presentation copy. The document they have is not what was to have been alleged to have been the original." Rothwell says, "I know what I have and I can prove what I have."

Lippe adds, "The possibility also exists that Michael believes the document was authentic, and for good reason. It was authenticated. We do have an expert apparently who did look at the document." Lippe would not say who his expert was, only that he was not a National Archives employee.

"If people knew why it was done—Michael personally wasn't profiting from it,” Lippe says. "He fully intended forthese people to be paid. He just couldn't pull it off. I really don't believe betrayal was in his heart."

Some of the investors agree. "I'm not convinced he's a confidence man, trying to bilk everyone out of their money," says another investor, Brian Flox, owner of Kenny's Jewelry and Loan Co., two doors down from the Legends Gallery. "Even though that's what happened, I don't think that was his initial intent. I think he wanted to become a bigwig, dealing in these kind of documents like the dealers in New York. But he tried to get too many irons in the fire and came up with no other option."

Others have different theories. "He was victimized by his own fear of not being accepted and liked," says Beck. "And because of that, Michael prevaricated a great deal, to others and to himself, and if I was a shrink, I would say on more than one occasion he believed what he was telling people, or wanted to believe it."

It appears Hurwitz falsified his military record when he ran for the Ohio House, listing himself as a decorated Vietnam veteran and a special assistant at the Pentagon in military intelligence. According to the National Personnel Records Center, Hurwitz was a clerk typist for the Army and never left the U.S.

"Michael liked to build himself up to something more than he was, and that's sad," says Marvin. “At first, it used to bug me when he'd make up these fantasy trips, but I thought, 'Imagine going through life trying to be something you're not.' So I humored him. I didn't want to embarrass him."

Whatever Hurwitz's intentions and motivations, his friends still feel betrayed. "Hell, I don't want to lose money, but that's not what's important,” says Beck. "The number-one feeling is one of being defrauded of a friendship. Michael not only stole money, but he also stole people's dreams."

More than one of Beck's dreams involved Hurwitz. The two had become acquainted almost three years ago. As their friendship evolved, Beck, who now owns Vanguard Video Productions, decided to underwrite a television version of “There's Gold in Your Attic." He paid for a set resembling an attic, and he and Hurwitz began working on a pilot episode.

In late August 1996, Hurwitz approached Beck to invest in the surrender document. “When Michael brought the document to me and I held it in my hands, it was a feeling of, 'Geez. I'm holding something that 200,000 Americans died to make happen.' "

While Hurwitz allegedly began enlisting other investors in the same document, Beck worked at selling the TV series. He says large cable networks were interested. "Had he listened to me, he would be wealthy. He would be popular. He would be successful. He would be all the things he wanted to be," says Beck. "I would have made him famous. He chose to make himself infamous."

Hurwitz is scheduled to appear before Judge Beverly Pfeiffer on Sept. 17 at 9 a.m. for trial on the 19 felony theft and forgery counts.

"I'm preparing as if we're going to go to trial, but I'd be surprised if we do," says Buchman, who's prosecuting the case. He says there have been “some general overtures" toward a plea bargain, but adds, “in my mind, the victims have to have some restitution. If we knew the victims could be taken care of, our position might be much different in terms of whether he ought to do a long time in jail, or probation."

At the moment, substantial restitution seems a long shot. “A lot of money was used to pay off past promises Michael made," says Lippe. "The money can be accounted for. Unfortunately, Michael doesn't have any of it.”

This story originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Columbus Monthly.


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