The story goes that the opera glasses were found in the middle of Tenth Street after the mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln was carried from Ford’s Theatre to his deathbed in the Petersen House that April evening in 1865.
For generations, they were kept in the family of the Army officer who found them. In 1979, they sold at auction for $22,000, a record for a Lincoln artifact. In 2002, they sold again, for $424,000, another record.
Next week, the black and gold theater glasses Lincoln is believed to have used the night before his death are going back on the auction block, where experts think they could fetch as much as $700,000.
The glasses are part of a June 17 Sotheby’s auction in New York that will include pricey Civil War items such as a handwritten letter from Robert E. Lee discussing his resignation from the U.S. Army and a flag from the famous Confederate warship CSS Alabama.
The auction comes as the nation marks the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the war, and interest in the subject is high.
“It’s not unusual for us to handle six-figure items,” said Selby Kiffer, the senior international specialist for books and manuscripts at the auction house. “But to have four or five of them all dealing with the Civil War is unusual.”
Lincoln’s opera glasses are among the most iconic items associated with his April 14, 1865, assassination by actor John Wilkes Booth.
“To hold these artifacts — and, really, relic is not too strong a term to use for them — in your hands really transports you back to that moment in time,” Kiffer said Wednesday.
Washington author and Lincoln scholar James Swanson said that we have plenty of relics connected to Lincoln the politician or the wartime president.
“What is great about the opera glasses is that they evoke another Lincoln: the literary man who loved plays and the theatre and the relief they gave him from the burdens of office,” he said in an e-mail.
According to Sotheby’s, the German-made opera glasses were found in the street by Capt. James M. McCamly, a veteran of the 70th New York Infantry Regiment who was serving as a Washington city guard the night of the assassination.
He rushed to the theater and helped carry Lincoln across Tenth Street to the Petersen boarding house, where the president died the next morning.
“As Lincoln was being transported, the opera glasses — perhaps still in Lincoln’s hands, perhaps tangled in his clothing — fell to the street,” according to an auction catalogue note.
Sotheby’s then cites an affidavit, drawn from family tradition, stating that McCamly “picked them up and put them in his pocket. He stayed with the body until it was taken to the White House at which time . . . he returned to his quarters and . . . discovered he had the glasses.”
The glasses stayed in his family for three generations, Sotheby’s said.
In 1968, McCamly’s great-grandson, researching the story, was told by the National Park Service that the glasses fit an opera glass case that had been “picked up in the Lincoln box” and was then in the Park Service’s Ford’s Theatre collection.
The Park Service confirmed Wednesday that it still has that black leather, red-satin-lined case.
But park ranger Gloria Swift, the former curator of the theater’s Lincoln artifacts, said that case is thought to have belonged to Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, whose opera glasses were also found in the box and are now in private hands.
She said she was skeptical of the McCamly story, noting that Lincoln had been examined by doctors in the theater and doubted that his opera glasses would still have been on his person as he was carried across the street.
“It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” she said. But “they could have been anyone’s glasses.”
Kiffer, of Sotheby’s, said: “With a piece of historical memorabilia, it’s very difficult to arrive at 100 percent accuracy. But . . . to my mind, this is as close as one can get.”
Plus, he said, the glasses have been “tested twice by the collectors’ market, which can be pretty severe, and both times come through with flying colors.”
In 1979, the glasses were sold by a collector who reportedly had bought them from McCamly’s descendants. The presale estimate was up to $4,000. They sold for five times that, to the late publisher Malcolm Forbes, Kiffer said.
In 2002, the glasses were sold again for a record-setting amount, Kiffer said.
In 2005, someone placed an ad in the New York Times stating that he had purchased the glasses from the Forbes collection and was offering them for sale for $2.5 million.
Kiffer declined to identify the current seller but said he was the person who bought the glasses from Forbes.
In 2008, a Chicago newspaper profile identified Illinois lawyer and collector William Kaper Jr. as the owner of the glasses and the person who had bought them from Forbes. Kaper could not be reached Wednesday.
Kiffer said the glasses suggest one of American history’s great “what if” moments.
“What if [Lincoln] had lived?” he said. “What if Booth had been stopped? How would Reconstruction have gone differently? How would the country have developed differently?”