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Thursday, March 21, 2013 11:04 am

Buyer beware

State warned before purchase of Lincoln relics

An appraiser hired to verify the value of a $23 million purchase of Abraham Lincoln artifacts, including a stovepipe hat, noted concerns about the authenticity of the hat and two other artifacts before the deal went through.

Appraiser Seth Kaller, a dealer in historic documents and artifacts from White Plains, N.Y., predicted that questions would be asked about the hat, a clock that purportedly came from Lincoln’s law office and a fan that Mary Todd Lincoln was believed to have carried the night that her husband was assassinated at Ford’s Theater.

Kaller’s concerns came in a March 15, 2007, email to Tom Schwartz, then state historian, and Louise Taper, a California collector who was selling the artifacts to a private fundraising foundation for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

“How was ownership first attributed to Lincoln, and by whom?” Kaller wrote in describing concerns about the clock, valued at $325,000 in an inventory of artifacts.

Kaller also asked why the hat, valued at $6.5 million, was attributed to Lincoln, who allegedly gave it to William Waller, a political supporter from Illinois, after being elected president, with the gift given in the nation’s capital. As it turns out, there is no evidence that Waller was ever in Washington, D.C., while Lincoln was president.

“Of all the hats purported to have been owned by Lincoln, why is this one of the three accepted ones?” Kaller asked. “Who is William Waller, and why and when did Lincoln give him the hat?”

Kaller also predicted that questions would be asked about a fan that Mary Todd Lincoln is believed to have carried in Ford’s Theater the night that her husband was shot. Who, asked Kaller, was Mrs. M.D. Dean, the purported source of the fan?

Schwartz, who is now director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa, said that his research showed that Dean once lived near Mary Todd Lincoln in Chicago and so would have been in a position to have received the fan from the president’s widow. The museum has staunchly defended the authenticity of the hat, which is now on display without any mention of gaps in its provenance. As for the clock, Schwartz referred questions to the museum.

In an email, Christopher Wills, spokesman for Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that runs the museum, wrote that the institution has traced ownership of the clock from Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, to a friend of the Herndon family whose relatives sold the clock to a collector in 1968.

“We have an affidavit laying out all this,” wrote Wills, who noted that Kaller did not raise questions about provenance of the three artifacts in his formal written appraisal prepared prior to sending emails predicting that questions would be raised about authenticity.

In his formal appraisal, Kaller wrote that the collection was worth the $23 million purchase price, a value established by another appraiser hired by Taper, but added that he was not asked to verify authenticity of the items.

Kaller’s emailed questions about provenance came amid a behind-the-scenes frenzy to purchase Taper’s collection. According to records from the IHPA, the 2007 purchase was hatched in the kitchen of Julie Cellini, former IHPA board chairwoman who was, and still is, secretary for the board of the fundraising foundation that bought the collection. In emails written after Kaller raised questions, Cellini was adamant that the acquisition include the hat, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and a sum-book page that is the oldest known document written in Lincoln’s hand. Despite Cellini’s insistence, the purchase did not include Taper’s copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The collection did include artifacts such as a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe that had no connection to Lincoln. The dress, still owned by the foundation, is being loaned to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. It is worth $40,000, according to an appraisal by Kaller prepared last month as part of the loan arrangements.

The 2007 sale was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, according to emails and other records held by the IHPA that stated Taper wasn’t willing to piecemeal her collection.

“I have a problem borrowing $23 million but not buying all the must-have major artifacts that, from the outset, the foundation was assured would be in the purchase,” Cellini wrote in an email to Rick Beard, former executive director of both the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum who also headed the private foundation that made the purchase. “I think that to have a clean purchase that the media and would-be detractors can’t attack as irresponsible, we should make sure the purchase includes all the major artifacts that were represented to us – and we represented to those from whom we are trying to get support and funds.”

The IHPA has recently released Kaller’s appraisal of the Taper collection and documents about the purchase in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and demands from agency board members who wanted to see the appraisal. In a 2007 email to Beard and Schwartz that accompanied a copy of the appraisal, Tolbert Chisum, who serves on the foundation’s board and was once its director and CEO, said that the appraisal should be revealed on a need-to-know basis. He wrote that secrecy was needed to satisfy Taper, who was and is on the foundation board but did not vote on the acquisition made with borrowed money.

“I would not publicize the availability of the appraisal to our board until we have a done deal, and maybe not then either,” Chisum wrote in a 2007 email to Schwartz and Taper. “After it (the collection) belongs to us, it is our decision to do what makes the most sense for the ALPLM. I see no reason in ever letting it out to the public, unless we need some publicity.”

Two IHPA board members have questioned the stovepipe hat’s authenticity and called for DNA testing in hopes of establishing a firm connection to Lincoln. Beard dismisses any doubts.

“You have one person (Kaller) who says maybe it’s not what it purports to be,” said Beard, who is now an advisor to the Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation, which helps with fundraising for Pennsylvania’s historic agency that runs museums and historic sites. “If there are members of the (IHPA) board who are addressing it at this point, they have their heads up their you-know-what. Pardon my language, but it’s bullshit. All these smart people got hoodwinked on this thing?”

Despite Kaller’s 2007 email, Schwartz says that no one raised questions about the authenticity of artifacts prior to purchase.

“I think, with all items, there are gaps (in provenance),” Schwartz said. “In many cases, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not what they’re supposed to be. Some items have better documentation than others. That doesn’t mean that more information about authenticity can’t be discovered.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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