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Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 05:37 pm

Lincoln appraisal released

Disclosure comes amid questions

Click here to read the appraisal: http://www.illinoistimes.com/Springfield/file-142-.pdf

Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball. A guitar once owned by Eric Clapton. A model of the Starship Enterprise.

These are among the items that an appraiser used in 2007 to establish the value of a collection of Lincoln documents and artifacts held by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Appraiser Seth Kaller accepted the asking price of $23 million as the fair-market value of the collection sold by Louise Taper, a California collector, to the museum's private fundraising foundation, which is now raising money to retire the debt.

Kaller, who owns a business that acquires historic artifacts in New York state, wrote in his appraisal that he accepted the museum's claim that the items are authentic and that his assignment did not include authentication.

"I have therefore made my valuation based on accepting the provenance information provided to me at the start of this project," the appraiser wrote.

Nonetheless, at least one of items in the collection was not real, Kaller wrote, and he raised questions about two others. A letter supposedly written by Mary Lincoln was, in fact, a clerical copy, Kaller wrote. It wasn't clear whether invitations to White House dinners had actually been drawn up by Mary Lincoln, he wrote. And he wasn't convinced that a signature on a photograph supposedly signed by the 16th president was, in fact, written in Lincoln's hand.

"It may very well be authentic, and I mention the issue here only to be thorough and to leave the door open for further study," Kaller wrote.

The appraisal was emailed to the media minutes before 5 p.m. on Friday by the museum. The release came more than three months after Amy Martin, director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which runs the museum, asked the museum's private fundraising foundation for a copy of the appraisal in a letter dated Nov. 1, 2012.

The release comes amid questions about the authenticity of a stovepipe hat that the museum says was given by Lincoln while he was in the nation's capital to a political supporter from Illinois. However, there is no evidence that the hat's alleged recipient was in Washington, D.C., as stated in an affidavit prepared in 1958 by a relative of the person who supposedly received the hat.

The museum set the value of the hat at $6.5 million according to a story published last year by the Chicago Sun-Times. However, Kaller's appraisal attaches no specific value to the hat. The appraiser wrote that the hat "is generally accepted as the last remaining Lincoln top hat in private hands."

In a written statement accompanying release of the appraisal, Eileen Mackevich, museum director, said that then state historian Thomas Schwartz reviewed the hat's history before it was acquired. She also wrote that the hat has been loaned to other institutions, and no questions about authenticity have been raised in the course of those loans.

Museum officials have flatly rejected the idea of testing the hat for DNA to authenticate the artifact. During a Wednesday meeting of the board of IHPA board of trustees, museum curator James Cornelius angrily interrupted trustee Tony Leone, who was proposing such tests.

"This is a dead issue," Cornelius said. "This is a non-issue. Dandruff, bone, hair -- it's not there."

Cornelius refused to answer questions from reporters as he left the Wednesday meeting.

"It's Dr. Cornelius," he snapped when a reporter in the building foyer referred to him as "Mr. Cornelius."

IHPA trustee Shirley Portwood, who also holds a doctorate in history and is a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University, says that the hat should be tested.

"I'm a historian," Portwood said after Wednesday's board meeting. "I haven't heard an explanation that fully satisfies me about the provenance of the hat."

Cornelius' refusal to consider testing came after DNA experts told Illinois Times that the hat might still contain Lincoln's DNA if, in fact, it had been owned by the Great Emancipator. There is no guarantee of success, experts told the newspaper, especially given the age of the hat and chances that it could have been contaminated by other people wearing it. Storage conditions are also key. Dark and dry is good, moisture and sunlight is bad. Ideally, experts said, a sample should be cut from the hat for testing, which would damage the relic, but it is also possible to conduct non-damaging tests by swabbing the object or applying tape.

In a written statement accompanying release of the appraisal, Brion Andreasen, research historian for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, said that DNA testing "would seem useless" because historians don't know how many people have tried the hat on over the years and contaminated the object. As an example, he wrote, then Secretary of State Jim Edgar in 1981 used the hat to draw a winner during a partisan dispute over drawing new legislative districts.

In his appraisal of the collection, Kaller wrote that there are few comparable sale records of Lincoln artifacts, so he included sale prices for other historic artifacts. In the case of the hat, Kaller compared the artifact to a Revolutionary War battle flag, a copper weathervane made around 1900 and the most expensive Lincoln manuscript ever sold, which fetched more than $3 million in 2002.

In setting the value of the collection, Kaller also included prices paid for such things as a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a vest worn by James Dean in the movie Giant, a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe when she sang "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy, a model of the Starship Enterprise, a guitar once owned by Eric Clapton, a Honus Wagner baseball card, a soccer jersey worn by Pele and the baseball hit by Mark McGwire for his 70th home run in 1998.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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