Stovepipe relic, valued at $6.5M, might not be Abe's
State Rep. Tim Butler said Wednesday the House should hold hearings to get to the bottom of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation and a stovepipe hat purportedly owned by Lincoln that the foundation shelled out millions to obtain.
Butler called for the hearings in the wake of a report Wednesday by WBEZ radio in Chicago about a previously undisclosed report by historians and an FBI analysis that further undermine claims the hat was ever owned by Lincoln.
“I just find it incredible that the foundation could sit on this report for 5 years while also out there advocating for private and public dollars for a collection where the most iconic item, they have a report that says it may not be Abe’s hat,” Butler said.
Nick Kalm, vice-chairman of the foundation, said the foundation will be “more than happy to share any information we have.” However, Kalm took issue with the idea the foundation withheld information about efforts to authenticate it.
Kalm said he and a couple of other board members led an effort to look at how a collection of Lincoln memorabilia was acquired – including the hat – and to look at the provenance of the hat.
“We were not secretive,” Kalm said. “We shared it with the director of the museum at the time. We shared it with the director of the [Historic Preservation Agency] at the time. None of them expressed any concern. None of them asked to see any of the underlying documents.”
The stovepipe hat, which is occasionally on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, was the centerpiece of the Louise and Barry Taper Collection bought by the foundation in 2007 for $25 million. The hat itself, which supposedly was given to an Illinois farmer by Lincoln, was valued at $6.5 million. The foundation borrowed $23 million to purchase the collection. It still owes $9.7 million on the loan, which must be repaid by next year.
Last spring, the foundation approached Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration about securing money in the state budget to help repay the loan but was not successful. Butler said the foundation’s attempts to secure state funding is one reason the issue deserves more public scrutiny.
“I want this to be Abe’s hat, I do, because I think it’s a tremendous part of the collection,” Butler said. “But I think it’s impossible to come to the state and ask us to help us to pay off this loan when we don’t even know if the most expensive item in the collection is actually what it’s said to be.”
Butler said he couldn’t advocate for state assistance for the foundation “in the current environment.”
Kalm called focus on the hat a “red herring” in the larger question of paying off the remaining loan on the Taper collection. There are about 1,400 other items in the collection, a handful of which were appraised at $10 million, he said.
“Why is it not a good use of state money to preserve these 1,400 artifacts?” he said.
The WBEZ report said the foundation secretly tried to authenticate the hat in 2014 through DNA testing done by the FBI. However, the FBI said it was unable to collect enough DNA from the hat that would have come from Lincoln’s time to authenticate whether it was owned by Lincoln.
WBEZ also reported that a report written by two historians at the Smithsonian and the Chicago History Museum determined there was inadequate documentation that Lincoln owned the hat. The two also said the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum might want to avoid displaying the hat until it can be authenticated.
Kalm, though, said other evidence points to it possibly being Lincoln’s hat. He said it was linked to a hat maker who was operating in Springfield at Lincoln’s time, it is Lincoln’s hat size, it was not a common style, and there is an area of the brim that is extended similar to the way Lincoln stuffed papers in his hat.
He also said that neither the DNA test nor the research done by historians turned up conclusive evidence that it isn’t Lincoln’s hat.
Butler said he wants the House Tourism Committee to hold hearings since the foundation was seeking tourism money to pay off its debt. He said the two historians should be asked to testify, along with a representative of the FBI. He said the committee should also try to get to the bottom of the foundation’s finances.
Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said the office is looking into the timing and logistics of a hearing, such as whether it would be held in Springfield or Chicago and when. Butler said he doesn’t want to wait until the post-election veto session to hold the hearing.
Alan Lowe, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, issued a statement chiding the foundation and saying it “should always provide prompt, complete information to the presidential library. It should work with us to seek the best ways of preserving Abraham Lincoln’s legacy for future generations.”
“The presidential library has already begun a new review of the facts and a new search for any additional evidence,” Lowe said. “What we learn, no matter what it says about the hat’s origins, will be shared with the public.”
He urged the foundation and state leaders to find ways to preserve the Taper collection in Illinois.
The museum doesn’t plan to put the stovepipe hat back on public display until the “current round of research into its origins is completed,” said Chris Wills, a museum spokesman.