A valuable cache of more than 1,500 Lincoln artifacts that were part of a multimillion-dollar acquisition 15 years ago was trucked this week from the Springfield Lincoln Museum that had housed them — with no plans to bring them back.
It’s the latest byproduct of an acrimonious relationship between the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the private foundation originally established nearly two decades ago to raise funds and acquire prized pieces from Lincoln for the state-run tourist destination.
The foundation and museum are at odds over the more than $8 million still owed for the purchase of the unique collection, and this week the foundation made the stunning decision to withdraw the collection, leaving its future and access of the uncertain public.
One of Lincoln’s top experts called the development “inconvenient”.
“It’s really very sad. This is really another blow to the prestige of the ALPLM,” said Kim Bauer, who curated the state’s own Lincoln artifact collection between 1994 and 2006.
swept away were elements like Mary Todd Lincoln’s bloodstained fan she wore the night her husband was murdered at Ford’s Theater, a cufflink he wore when he was shot, Lincoln’s canes, some of his early writings and a bottle of ink from his Springfield Law Office.
Also included was a beaver-skin stovepipe hat, once valued at over $6 million, which the museum and foundation once adamantly believed had placed on Lincoln’s head, but was later discredited due to intractable 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 Lincoln Foundation board member, she sold the items to the foundation for $23 million in 2007.
Municipal bonds were issued by the City of Springfield to help fund part of the deal, and private donations were guaranteed, with the understanding that once the foundation loan was repaid, the collection would become the property of the museum.
But the debt on the collection remained a problem, and the foundation sought in vain in the past obtain state assistance to repay part of this debt.
A spokesperson for the foundation said the nonprofit still had more than $8 million in debt associated with the acquisition of the Taper collection, and that a 15-year agreement allowing the exhibition artifacts at the museum expired on Monday.
“In accordance with this expiring loan agreement…we have arranged with the cooperation of the state to return this collection to our control,” said Nick Kalm, first vice-chairman of the foundation board.
Kalm wouldn’t say what happens next for unique 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 objectives: the first is to do whatever we can at the request of the bank to pay off the remaining $8 million or more of the original debt…. And #2, at the same time, we want to do everything we can to ensure 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 considered auctioning off part of the collection to pay off its original debt, but shelved it when it managed in late 2019 to have its loan refinanced for three years.
When asked if a possible auction was back on the table to help pay off his multimillion-dollar debt, Kalm reiterated the council’s stated desire to keep the items “available to the public,” but said no decision had been made on the sale of pieces from the collection.
The company hired to transport the Taper items out of state possession was no ordinary moving company — it was the Chicago-based Hindman Auction House, according to a museum spokesperson.
Museum officials have also challenged the foundation’s position that it cannot repay the debt and return the collection to the museum as promised. They say the filings indicate the foundation could repay the debt and say they have not been told what will happen with the collection.
“It is not known where the foundation will store these artifacts or if the items will be publicly available in the future. Although it has been requested, the foundation [has] not provide this information,” Christina Shutt, executive director of the Lincoln Museum and Library, wrote in a letter to staff Monday evening.
“What is known is that in government-mandated documents required of non-profit organizations, the foundation revealed that it had the money to pay off the outstanding debt on the collection. Doing so before today would ensure that the collection would become the property of the people of Illinois,” she said.
“Unfortunately, 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 place for the collection at the ALPLM, the foundation ultimately chose to break the long-standing commitment,” Shutt wrote.
Relations between the museum and the foundation began to sour years ago, amid questions over financial transparency and stalled negotiations over how the two entities would legally coexist. The dispute coincided with the report of the Sun-Times and then WBEZ this raised serious questions about the provenance of the cloisonné hat, which was once considered the cornerstone of Taper’s acquisition.
In 2019, a state of 16 months study by former Illinois State Historian Samuel Wheeler found no evidence to authenticate the hat, noting that it did not appear to be Lincoln-sized. Wheeler’s study also found the hat was sold in the 1950s to an upstate antique store for just $1, and its alleged connection to Lincoln was not even known to descendants. from its original owners.
Wheeler, whose report called for further study of the hat, was removed from his position by the state in 2020.
State Representative Tim Butler, R-Springfield, whose city has reaped the benefits of museum-related tourism, expressed frustration that Taper artifacts are no longer on display at the institution and said Monday’s developments challenged the original intent behind acquiring the items. .
“I am very disappointed that the Taper Collection was originally obtained in the public interest on behalf of the people of Illinois and now it appears the items will no longer benefit the public,” he said.
Butler also said he was “concerned that the items could eventually end up being auctioned off in collections not available to the public.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow @davemckinney.