Meet the man behind the fake Mary Todd Lincoln portrait

Meet the man behind the fake Mary Todd Lincoln portrait

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Mary Lincoln portrait from 1978 after it was cleaned, then returned to the Lincoln Library. It then hung in the Governor's mansion for 32 years. (Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)
In February of this year, the New York Times featured a story about America’s most written-about president, Abraham Lincoln. Well, not Lincoln himself, but his wife Mary Todd, a woman whose life has been labeled fascinating, if more than slightly tragic.

And well, the piece wasn’t about Mary Todd as much as it was about a portrait of her that spent over three decades in the Illinois Governor’s mansion. The portrait was thought to be by Francis Bicknell Carpenter and — even better — thought to have been a surprise gift commissioned by Mrs. Lincoln for her husband. 

This painting and the Times had a long history; the paper announced its discovery in 1929. And when the painting was found to be a fraud, conservator Barry Bauman and publicist Sheryl Johnston contacted the Times to see if they’d be interested in issuing a correction after 83 years.

“They got the joke,” says Bauman.

Bauman typically works on pieces done before 1950, and particularly enjoys 19th century, Civil War-era work, as well as 17th century Dutch masters. He spent time at the Art Institute of Chicago as an Assistant (and Associate) Conservator of Paintings, and now offers his services pro-bono to non-profits. He’ll be presenting his case study, told in a unique fashion as a series of letters between him and Mary Todd, tonight at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield.

Mary Lincoln portrait, 2011 after Bauman restored it to exactly the way it appeared when it was originally painted.(Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)
“This painting has gotten more attention than any painting I’ve worked on,” Bauman says, of the work he spent about five months on. “I mean, without a doubt. To make the front page of the New York Times Sunday paper — in color!” (Bauman is referring to first edition of the paper.) 

“It’s caught me off guard. I knew when I wrote the case study, I said to myself, ‘Oh that’s pretty interesting. I thought, well, maybe the New York Times will be interested in this.‘” 

When asked why he thinks this story in particular has so capitivated the country, Bauman has an easy answer: “People like conspiracy stories. And this is Lincoln,” a reference to the fascination that abounds about the late President’s mysterious life.

Plus, the fact that the painting was considered worth hundreds of thousands of dollars - a pricetag that no longer exists - doesn’t hurt. 

Steve Edwards chats with Bauman on Afternoon Shift Thursday, and though his presentation is this evening, it doesn’t look like this will be the last of his time in the interview chair. The story of the Mary Todd Lincoln portrait will be part of CNBC’s show Crime Inc. airing in August, and Bauman has been taped for a PBS special as well.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of his conservation work stops. In his home office now, Bauman’s got six paintings waiting for him to start work.

After all, “When you work at no charge, you’re going to be busy.”

Brooch before treatment with Lincoln's face painted over original brooch (Courtesy of Barry Bauman Conservation)
Brooch during treatment Lincoln's face is partially removed (Courtesy of Barry Bauman Conservation)
Updated 4/30/12 at 10:16 am: This post has been updated throughout.