An Illinois museum may need to auction off Abraham Lincoln memorabilia to pay off loan

An Illinois museum may need to auction off Abraham Lincoln memorabilia to pay off loan
Abraham Lincoln's iconic stovepipe hat and bloodstained gloves he carried on the night of his death are among the artifacts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman / Associated Press)

The Land of Lincoln is in such financial disarray, it’s looking at selling some of the Lincoln.

The foundation that supports the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum says that prestigious memorabilia tied to the home-state 16th president could be sold to help pay back a loan taken out to buy a trove of items more than a decade ago.

“If the foundation is not able to secure commitments in the very near future to retire most — if not all — of the remaining $9.7 million debt, it will have no choice but to accelerate the possibility of selling these unique artifacts on the private market — which would likely remove them from public view forever,” the Lincoln library foundation said Thursday in a statement.

Officials sounded the alarm bell publicly after meeting with aides to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner this month but “receiving no financial commitments.” The Lincoln officials noted that they’ve asked state lawmakers for money three times, to no avail.

A Rauner spokeswoman called the museum “a jewel for the state.”

“We are certainly interested in working with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation as they work through their options,” Patty Schuh said. “We are listening to their business plan.”

Finding the money and getting the long-warring parties at the Capitol to agree to spending it could prove challenging.

The state is billions of dollars in debt despite approving a major income-tax increase last summer. There’s been little progress in putting together a budget this spring as a scheduled adjournment looms at month’s end. And it’s an election year, meaning that money is under the microscope as lawmakers prepare to stand for reelection.

State government runs and funds the Lincoln library and museum. The separately run foundation raises private funds to support the presidential complex. The foundation, which is not funded by the state, operates a gift store and restaurant but has little role in the complex’s operations, programs and oversight.

** FILE ** President Abraham Lincoln is shown in this Nov. 8, 1863 file photo made available by the
President Lincoln in a Nov. 8, 1863, photo. Alexander Gardner

The financial issues stem from a $23-million loan taken out to bankroll the 2007 purchase of a trove of Lincoln and non-Lincoln artifacts. The foundation bought a collection of more than 1,000 items from Louise Taper of Beverly Hills, who also donated memorabilia in what was viewed as a big coup for the popular $145-million museum, which has drawn more than 4 million visitors since opening in 2005 in downtown Springfield.

The Taper collection included a beaver fur stovepipe hat that library officials are satisfied that Lincoln wore, though some critics are not convinced there is empirical evidence of an attachment to Honest Abe. There also are Lincoln eyeglasses, a billfold, and gloves he wore to Ford’s Theatre when he was shot on April 14, 1865. They carry some of the president’s blood.

Among the non-Lincoln items in the collection are some that could fetch big bucks to help pay off the loan, including a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe.

Museum officials are sorting out which Taper collection items were donated and transferred to the state, and what might end up for sale — if it should come to that.

One item that won’t be on the auction block is the state’s rare copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in Lincoln’s hand. The long-held showcase document wasn’t part of the Taper purchase.

The state’s collection of tens of thousands of Lincoln artifacts draws researchers from around the globe and gives the public a chance to see up close big and small pieces of history tied to the president many consider to be the country’s greatest.

Tony Leone, who once served on a historic preservation panel that had some oversight of the Lincoln library, said that losing items to pay off the loan would give the state a “black eye.” Leone questioned whether the library or the foundation would have “priority over what part of the collection they can keep.”

The museum foundation and the state have some time. The loan doesn’t come up for renewal until October 2019. The lender, which was not disclosed, has been helpful with terms in the past, the foundation said.

Rene Brethorst, the foundation’s chief operating officer, said in an email that the sale of Lincoln items is “something we are working hard to avoid.”

“But, if we don’t secure funding, we will have to accelerate that possibility,” she wrote. “We don’t know which items might be sold, but the vast majority of items in this collection are related to Abraham Lincoln, his family or others with direct connections to him.”

While Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s long-running dispute has complicated state government operations, the two have a track record of negotiating on issues surrounding the Lincoln complex. After some disputes, Rauner signed an executive order last year creating a stand-alone state agency for the Lincoln museum. Madigan had sought that change for years, arguing that it would free the museum from bureaucratic red tape.

Long writes for the Chicago Tribune.