Sometimes, even Abraham Lincoln needs a GoFundMe campaign.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, which supports Lincoln’s museum in Springfield, Ill., has found itself $9.7 million in debt on a loan it took out 11 years ago to purchase a collection of rare artifacts from a private collector. Now, hundreds of Lincoln’s personal possessions, including a beaver-fur stovepipe hat that Lincoln purportedly wore, as well as letters and other artifacts, are at risk of ending up on the auction block if the foundation can’t pay off the hulking debt through state funding or private donations. Or even a GoFundMe campaign titled, “Save Lincoln Artifacts. Donate NOW!”
On Wednesday, the foundation and its board members agreed to begin hunting for prospective auction houses. The move is a necessary precaution in the event the foundation cannot make the payment deadline in October 2019, the foundation said.
As of early Friday morning, the Lincoln Museum’s GoFundMe page to help save the collection from auction has raised $10,239, still well short of the $9.7 million goal.
“It’s certainly not a day any of us wanted to see come to pass,” Carla Knorowski, the foundation’s CEO, told The Washington Post about Wednesday’s decision. “Having said that, it’s something that we internally have been preparing for just in case. But every day that I wake up, that my colleagues wake up and our board wakes up, we are working to figure out how we can raise money towards this, and how we can successfully bring this campaign to a conclusion.”
Perhaps the most recognizable item at stake is a beaver-fur stovepipe hat that Lincoln purportedly wore as a state lawmaker in Springfield. The famous top hat is just one of three of its kind preserved over time, Knorowski said, although some have questioned its authenticity. The collection offers rare items, such as bloodstained white gloves the president had in his pocket the night he was assassinated, as well as his billfold, eyeglasses and presidential seal, still checkered with red chips of wax wedged into the cracks. Knorowski said there’s also a page from his 1824 “sum book,” in which Lincoln scribbled long division and wrote a poem in the top corner, bearing the earliest known example of his handwriting.
“Abraham Lincoln is my name,” the 14-year-old Lincoln wrote, “and with my pen I wrote the same. I wrote in both haste and speed, and left it here for fools to read.”
The artifacts are all part of the Louise and Barry Taper Collection, one of the most comprehensive collections of Lincoln’s personal belongings. In 2007, the foundation acquired more than 1,000 artifacts valued at $25 million from the Taper collection. The money came in the form of a $2 million donation and a $23 million loan, which the foundation expected to pay back in private donations.
At the time of the purchase, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum was still relatively new, having opened its doors in 2005. The library offered tourists a chance to see rare copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment and the Gettysburg Address. But what it lacked, Knorowski said, were Lincoln’s everyday belongings or prized possessions that would make the museum come to life.
That’s why the Taper collection was so important, she said, as it brought so many of Lincoln’s possessions out of private hands and into the public realm.
“Abraham Lincoln is our nation’s greatest export,” she said. “People might say it’s corn or the U.S. dollar or whatever. But it’s Abraham Lincoln.”
Since the foundation acquired the collection, private philanthropists have donated more than $13 million to pay off the loan, Knorowski said. But donor fatigue in the 11 years since the purchase of the collection has left the foundation and its supporters wondering what’s next.
Once the loan is paid off in full, the state of Illinois, with license plates that proudly say “Land of Lincoln,” is expected to become the owner of the collection, according to the foundation. The state is not providing funding to the foundation.
“Many of the donors or prospective donors have come to us and said, ‘Well, what is the state doing to help?’ ” Knorowski said.
The foundation met with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office in May to talk through their options, but the governor’s office “made no financial commitments,” the foundation said at the time. A spokeswoman from the governor’s office told the State Journal-Register that it would continue to work with the foundation and is “listening to their business plan,” but wouldn’t elaborate on any help the state might offer.
The foundation is hoping for a $5 million grant from a state tourism fund, believing it could then challenge private donors to match the rest. However, state Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield), who represents the same area that Lincoln once did, told the Associated Press that state funding would be a last resort and questioned whether shopping for auction houses was necessary.
“This is a really bad sign that they’ve started these proceedings,” he told the AP. “I realize they’ve got to do some planning, but I would hope that the foundation wouldn’t move to that step until the absolutely last minute.”
The foundation has already sold some items from the collection at auction — specifically, items that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. She ended up in the Taper collection because of her fascination with the president, Knorowski said. Taper’s collection included a dress that belonged to the star that sold for $50,000 at auction and a bust of Carl Sandburg, whom Monroe befriended after reading his biography of Lincoln.
Knorowski said the Las Vegas-based auction featuring the Monroe items took more than 10 months to arrange.
“He is the standard-bearer for our nation, and it’s important that we honor him, and it’s our job at the foundation to honor his legacy every day,” Knorowski said. “That’s why we bought this collection and that’s why we’re committed to retaining it.”