Selling expendable Lincoln-related items won’t erase museum’s debt

John O'Connor
The Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The acquisition of 1,500 documents and artifacts for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum a decade ago firmly established Illinois as a leading repository of all things Lincoln, the prairie lawyer who led the U.S. through the Civil War.

So forgive the hand-wringing over the possibility that some of it might have to be sold. The Lincoln museum’s fundraising foundation, which borrowed $23 million in 2007 to buy the trove from private collector Louise Taper, still owes $9.2 million on a note due in October 2019. Donations have slowed, and state officials are reluctant to chip in.

An Associated Press review of the collection shows large parts that could be considered expendable. Does a collection of Lincoln memorabilia need five dozen playbills, letters and lithographs belonging to Junius Brutus Booth, the father of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, who died eight years before Lincoln became president?

Does it need an 1874 invitation to the wedding of the daughter of President Ulysses Grant? A 1928 memo to the wife of the law partner of Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln? A 1948 limited edition copy of “John Brown’s Body,” the Stephen Vincent Benet poem?

Maybe not. But selling them would hardly make a dent in the Springfield museum’s debt. A copy of Benet’s Civil War folk epic from the same printing goes for less than $100 online. A New York dealer sold an 1851 Junius Booth playbill several years ago for $400.

“You can’t take nine of those pieces and come up with $9 million,” said New Jersey-based appraiser Brian Kathenes. “You’d probably have to go after some of the better stuff or sell a lot more of it off.”

Museums’ code of ethics prohibits the sale of items in collections for anything other than buying additional items.

Fundraising continues: Yet the Lincoln museum foundation says such a sale may be necessary. A foundation statement released last week says negotiations and fundraising — including a GoFundMe page — continue while material is culled for potential debt reduction “without selling off core items.” The foundation’s attempts for a state grant have met resistance.

Harold Holzer, the prolific and award-winning author and Lincoln scholar, said museums routinely sell duplicative items or “second-rate things” acquired along with prized treasures.

“But not to pay the rent,” Holzer said, “because the temptation is too large to defenestrate the place in order to pay for the walls. The walls were built to protect the material. The material is not there to protect the walls.”

The Taper collection is awash in riches: examples of Lincoln’s earliest known writings, his presidential seal, replete with wax remnants from its last use; an 1839 Schuyler County legal brief that contains the signatures of both Lincoln for the plaintiff and his longtime rival, Stephen A. Douglas, for the defense; the blood-soaked kid gloves he had in his pocket the night he was assassinated.

The collection: A list of the collection provided to the AP has 701 entries comprising at least 1,200 separate items. While 561 items are associated with the name Lincoln — from the president’s grandfather, Col. Abraham Lincoln in 1778, to his daughter-in-law, Mary Harlan Lincoln in 1942 — 265 items are related to the Booths, only 52 of which are associated with the man who killed Lincoln in 1865.

Yet Kathenes wonders what some researcher might find among seemingly innocuous items.

“Everything that you remove exponentially cripples the institution,” Holzer added. “It makes things worse, not better. Even if you collect some money, your reputation is so scarred that I don’t think it would ever recover.”