A confederacy of dunces

Now playing at a museum near you

Let’s consider how we came to once worship a hat that could have belonged to Abraham Lincoln – or Willy Wonka, or Slash, as some Twitterheads, including myself, have suggested.

The year was 2007, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation was drooling over a collection of Lincoln documents and artifacts, including a stovepipe hat that’s become famous for all the wrong reasons. The hat was owned by Louise Taper, a denizen of Beverly Hills and a foundation board member. “From the onset, when Louise talked to me in my kitchen some three years ago, the price of her total collection was $15 to $16 to $20 million to whatever,” Julie Cellini, foundation board secretary, wrote in an April 1 (yes, April Fool’s Day) email to T. Tolbert Chisum, a foundation board member. “The price bounced around. But the ‘must haves’ were always in the proposed sale we discussed.”

The “must have” to which Cellini referred was a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln. That iconic – and presumably authentic – document, despite Cellini’s insistence, wasn’t included in the final sale, but the price tag stayed at $23 million. Who’d make a deal like that? Someone with buyer’s fever, which appears to have been contagious back when the foundation agreed to buy Taper’s collection, which included a hat that Pawn Stars would reject as iffy.

Thanks to a report last week by WBEZ radio in Chicago, we know that neither the FBI nor historians from the Smithsonian and the Chicago History Museum could authenticate the hat. That’s somewhat old news. Dave McKinney, the same journalist who broke the WBEZ story, reported in 2012 that an affidavit from the 1950s, once considered proof, doesn’t hold water. That shouldn’t have been startling to either the foundation or the state, given that an appraiser hired before the 2007 sale sent an email to Tom Schwartz, then state historian, and Taper, questioning the provenance of the hat, as well as a clock that is said to have come from Lincoln’s law office, as well as a fan that Mary Todd Lincoln is supposed to have carried with her to Ford’s Theatre. The same appraiser, who was paid by the state, also spotted a fake Mary Todd Lincoln letter (it was a clerical copy) and questioned whether Lincoln had actually signed a photograph bearing his autograph and whether invitations to White House dinners really came from Mary.

That’s a fair number of flags. Nonetheless, the foundation closed the deal, thinking it would be able to raise $23 million to pay off a loan so that artifacts would forever grace display cases at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Whether stuff is real hasn’t seemed to matter to either the foundation or the ALPLM. Until the WBEZ story last week, the museum, like P.T. Barnum, kept displaying the hat with nary a hint about provenance proven shaky a half-dozen years ago. “It’s not uncommon to see a visitor moved to tears while standing in front of it,” Samuel Wheeler, state historian, wrote in the July issue of the foundation’s quarterly newsletter. “Perhaps no other artifact in this collection is so powerful.”

Wheeler wrote that even though the foundation in January summarized authentication efforts by the FBI and outside historians for ALPLM director Alan Lowe, according to the WBEZ report, and Nick Kalm, who sits on the foundation’s board of directors. Lowe has protested that he only recently saw reports from the historians and the FBI.

If this were a movie, and it’s starting to look like one, Lowe would be Captain Renault, shocked to discover he’s got a provenance issue, and the foundation would be the sheriff in Cool Hand Luke, grousing about failures to communicate. Of course, nothing here is shocking and there is no failure to communicate. What we have here is a failure to successfully obfuscate.

In 2014, Wayne Whalen, then chairman of the foundation board, told me that the foundation had established an internal committee to review the provenance of artifacts in the Taper collection. Why not an outside group, I asked. “I’ll wait and see what the committee has to say,” answered Whalen, without mentioning that the foundation already had a report from top-notch historians who found no proof the hat belonged to Lincoln and suggested that any claims to authenticity be toned down.

Twice since Lowe came to Springfield in 2016, I’ve asked the director about the foundation’s promised review of provenance, and I reminded him that the appraiser in 2007 had raised questions about more than just the hat. I’ll look into it, he said during both interviews. I never heard back.

Kalm tells me that the real issue is the state’s reluctance to bail out the foundation, which still owes $9.7 million for the purchase of the hat and other artifacts that may or may not be real. He said the foundation already has raised $15 million; the hat was valued at $6.5 million in 2007. “Forget the hat,” Kalm said. “The hat is long since paid for.”

It will be interesting to hear the foundation posit that line of thinking at hearings that legislators are demanding since the WBEZ report aired. Kalm says foundation officials are ready to testify.

“We have nothing to hide,” he said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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