Lincoln museum artifacts could go to auction due to a historic debt

Author: CBS News
Abraham Lincoln’s hat is part of the collection at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. CBS NEWS

At the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is alive. But some of Lincoln’s most prized possessions are in peril – including his hat, gloves, quill pen and a fan that belonged to his wife, Mary. They may go to auction because of a historic debt, reports CBS News correspondent Adriana Diaz.

“What I sometimes say is, he couldn’t catch a break in the 19th century and it seems now he can’t catch a break in the 21st century,” Carla Knorowski said. She runs the museum’s private foundation, which is more than $9 million short on a $23 million loan used to buy Lincoln artifacts from a private collector. The money’s due next year, and one way to get the money fast? Auction off Lincoln’s belongings.

Illinois state historian Sam Wheeler let us into their high-security vault.

“This is where we keep the greatest treasures,” Wheeler said.

Treasures that could be sold include Lincoln’s iconic hat made of beaver fur. “As people called out, ‘Good evening, Mr. Lincoln,’ he donned that cap,” Wheeler said. There were even two marks on the brim from “well-worn fingerprints.”

Also at risk: a Wanted poster from Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and the gloves stained with his blood that were in his pocket on that ill-fated night.

“I’ve seen people stand in front of the bloody gloves, stand in front of the stovepipe hat, and they’ll weep because that’s the physical connection they have with the greatest president in American history,” Wheeler said.

To save these items, Knorowski hopes private donations pour in.

“What do you say to folks who say that your organization shouldn’t be depending on the public to save it, to bail it out?” Diaz asked her.

“We would encourage them to not to view it as a bailout but rather as an opportunity to give back to the man who’s done so much for us,” Knorowski said.

She said the financial crisis is partly to blame because donations declined, but that rationale is not enough for Tony Leone – a Lincoln buff himself – who once sat on the board that oversaw the museum.

“Somebody’s got some explaining to do,” Leone said.

“We really don’t have any serious accounting of how much they raise every year and how much they spend,” he added, saying he thinks it’s reached the level of a scandal.

Knorowski said there was no “mismanagement of funds,” and if they’re able to raise the money they need, “it’ll be the scream that went around the world.”

They have to decide whether to go to auction and which items to sell in the next few months. They have even started a GoFundMe page, which has raised more than $7,000. But that’s a long way from the $9.7 million needed to save the items from auction.

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