Valuable Lincoln artifacts are taken from a Springfield museum as feuding with a not-for-profit intensifies
A valuable cache of 1,500-plus Lincoln artifacts that were part of a multimillion-dollar acquisition 15 years ago was trucked away this week from the Springfield Lincoln museum that had housed them — with no plans of bringing them back.
It’s the latest by-product of an acrimonious relationship between the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the private foundation originally set up nearly two decades ago to fundraise and acquire prized Lincoln pieces for the state-run tourist destination to display.
The foundation and museum are at odds over the $8 million-plus still owed for the purchase of the unique collection, and this week the foundation made the stunning decision to remove the collection, leaving its future and the public’s access to it uncertain.
One top Lincoln expert called the development “an embarrassment.”
“It’s really very sad. It is really another blow to the prestige of the ALPLM,” said Kim Bauer, who curated the state’s own collection of Lincoln artifacts between 1994 and 2006.
Taken away were items such as Mary Todd Lincoln’s blood-stained fan she was carrying the night her husband was assassinated at Ford’s Theater, a cuff button he was wearing when he was shot, Lincoln’s walking sticks, some of his early writings and an ink bottle from his Springfield law office.
Also included was a beaver-skin stovepipe hat, once appraised at more than $6 million, that the museum and foundation once adamantly believed had set atop Lincoln’s head but that later was discredited because of unresolvable questions surrounding its authenticity.
These were all part of a collection of Lincoln artifacts once owned by wealthy West Coast historian and collector Louise Taper. A member of the Lincoln foundation board, she sold the items to the foundation for $23 million in 2007.
Municipal bonds were issued by the city of Springfield to help finance part of the deal, and private donations were secured with the understanding that once the foundation’s borrowing was repaid, the collection would become property of the museum.
But the debt on the collection has remained an issue, and the foundation sought unsuccessfully in the past to get the state’s help in retiring some of that debt.
A foundation spokesman said the not-for-profit still has a debt exceeding $8 million associated with acquiring the Taper collection, and a 15-year agreement that allowed for the artifacts to be on display at the museum expired on Monday.
“In accordance with that…loan agreement expiring, we arranged with the cooperation of the state for return of that collection to our control,” said Nick Kalm, the foundation board’s first vice chairman.
Kalm would not say what happens next for the one-time museum pieces.
“We don’t have any plans at this point in terms of what we’re going to do with the artifacts,” he said. “We have two key goals: One is to do all we can at the bank’s urging to pay off the remaining $8 million or so on the original debt….And No. 2, concurrently, we want to do everything we can to make sure that this collection, which has been in the public domain for 15 years, continues to be available to the public for years to come.”
The foundation had once contemplated auctioning off part of the collection to pay off its original debt but shelved that when it was successful in late 2019 getting its loan refinanced for three years.
Asked if a possible auction was back on the table to help retire its multimillion-dollar debt, Kalm reiterated the board’s stated desire to keep the items “available to the public” but said no decision had been made on selling any pieces of the collection.
The company hired to transport the Taper items away from the state’s possession was not a run-of-the-mill moving company — it was the Chicago-based Hindman auction house, according to a museum spokesman.
Museum officials also took issue with the foundation’s stance that it cannot pay off the debt and turn over the collection to the museum as promised. They say filings indicate the foundation could pay off the debt, and say they haven’t been told what will happen with the collection.
“It is unknown where the foundation will store these artifacts or whether the items will be publicly accessible in the future. Though it has been asked, the foundation [has] not provided this information,” Christina Shutt, the Lincoln museum and library’s executive director, wrote in a Monday night letter to staff.
“What is known is that, in government-mandated documents required of not-for-profits, the foundation has revealed that it has the money to pay off the remaining debt on the collection. Doing so prior to today would ensure that the collection would become the property of the people of Illinois,” she said.
“Regrettably, even after raising tens of millions of dollars more than the loan of 15 years ago, and even with the repeated promise to maintain a permanent home for the collection at the ALPLM, the foundation has ultimately chosen not to meet the longstanding commitment,” Shutt wrote.
Relations between the museum and foundation began to sour years ago, amid questions over financial transparency and stalled negotiations over how the two entities would legally co-exist with one another. The feuding coincided with reporting by the Sun-Times and later WBEZ that raised serious questions about the provenance of the stovepipe hat, which was once regarded as the cornerstone of the Taper acquisition.
In 2019, a 16-month state study by former Illinois State Historian Samuel Wheeler found no evidence to authenticate the hat, noting that it did not appear to be Lincoln’s size. Wheeler’s study also found the hat was sold in the 1950s to a downstate antique shop for just $1, and its alleged connection to Lincoln wasn’t even known to descendants of its original owners.
Wheeler, whose report advocated further study of the hat, was relieved of his duties by the state in 2020.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, whose city has reaped the benefits of tourism linked to the museum, voiced frustration that the Taper artifacts no longer will be on display at the institution and said Monday’s developments defy the original intent behind acquiring the items.
“I’m very disappointed that the Taper Collection was originally obtained in the public interest on behalf of the people of Illinois and now it seems that the items will no longer benefit the public,” he said.
Butler also said he is “concerned the items may eventually be auctioned into collections not available to the public.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow @davemckinney.