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Lincoln museum backers seek money to keep Illinois artifacts

November 13, 2018
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Alan Lowe, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, answers questions during a House tourism committee hearing Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Springfield, Ill., over the value of a Lincoln collection purchased by the ALPLM foundation and the loan to pay for it after questions have been raised about the historical authenticity of a stovepipe hat believed to have been owned by Abraham Lincoln. (Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Advocates for Abraham Lincoln’s museum pleaded with Illinois lawmakers Tuesday to use state funds to help keep a throng of historic artifacts in his hometown despite questions about whether one of the relics — a stovepipe hat — actually belonged to the 16th president.

Lawmakers grilled Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation leaders over the $9.2 million it still owes on the loan it took in 2007 to buy a collection of as many as 1,500 Lincoln-related items from private collector Louise Taper. The note comes due in October 2019, and the foundation has said it will have to auction parts of the collection if it can’t raise the balance.

But fundraising isn’t easy in the face of negative publicity. A report this fall found that the foundation had secretly sought expert advice and a DNA test on a period stovepipe hat in Lincoln’s size that failed to delineate a clear connection. Questions about whether administrators of the museum and library were properly informed have strained relations .

The Taper collection is a smorgasbord of Lincoln memorabilia. Along with thousands of pages of documents dating to the president’s grandfather, Col. Abraham Lincoln, it includes the bloodied kid gloves Lincoln had in his pocket the night he was killed at Ford’s Theater, the quill pen left on his desk; his presidential seal, replete with wax left on it from its last use; and a notebook with his earliest known writings.

“Lincoln always knew he would come back to Springfield and that’s where his most iconic personal effects deserve to stay, right here in the land of Lincoln,” foundation CEO Carla Knorowski testified. In a line borrowed from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, she added an “appeal to the better angels of your nature.”

The foundation has sought $5 million from the hotel occupancy tax money collected for tourism promotion. Knorowski said Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration agreed in May but has since backed off.

Rauner spokeswoman Elizabeth Tomev said the Republican supports a “vibrant” Lincoln museum but his staff is waiting for a detailed business plan and other debt-repayment data requested last spring. 

Sold for $25 million, Taper donated $2 million worth of items. The foundation borrowed $23 million and has paid $13 million in principal and $8 million in interest. The loan has been refinanced — once at a higher rate for a shorter term, Rep. Jeanne Ives noted — and it stands at $9.2 million despite annual foundation fundraising collections averaging $3.5 million.

“I don’t understand how your foundation directors have allowed this to go on for so long,” said Ives, a Wheaton Republican.

Ives read from an appraisal in 2017 that questioned the authenticity not only of the hat but of a clock allegedly from Lincoln’s Springfield law office and a hand fan Mary Lincoln took to the theater the night her husband was shot. State historian Samuel Wheeler, who called the collection “world class,” said research continues on all three items.

Despite questions, the foundation said an appraisal of just 40 items that it hasn’t identified found a fair-market value of $10.3 million. Knorowski said it’s unclear how many items would have to be sold to satisfy the debt. The foundation is seeking an auction house to be ready for a sale.

Adding a touch of theater to the proceedings was Lincoln presenter Randy Duncan of Carlinville , invited by Rep. Ann Williams, the Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Tourism, Hospitality and Craft Industries Committee.

Duncan appeared this time without the traditional Lincoln-style top hat, a nod to the ongoing controversy.

“There’s more to my legacy than just a hat,” the Lincoln portrayer said.

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Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor .

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