The private foundation that sought financial help from Illinois taxpayers to pay off its multimillion-dollar purchase of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia will have to look somewhere else.
With less than two weeks left in the spring legislative session, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s office is putting the kibosh on any taxpayer bailout of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, which as of last year owed more than $9 million from the purchase.
That pronouncement deepens uncertainty about the fate of some key bits of so-called “Lincolniana”: the blood-stained gloves Lincoln had with him the night he was assassinated, a quill pen left on his desk and a presidential seal he used.
Last year, the foundation asked for state support to pay off its outstanding loan balance. If that support didn’t materialize, the group threatened to auction pieces of the Lincoln trove it acquired in 2007 from collector Louise Taper, who at the time was a member of the foundation’s board.
The governor and Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar, of downstate Bunker Hill, have been pressing for greater transparency into the foundation’s finances.
Earlier this year, Manar floated legislation that could have forced out the foundation’s senior leadership. Now, he is pushing a measure designed to foster greater cooperation between the foundation and the Springfield-based cultural institution it was set up to serve, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
“The governor has spoken with Sen. Manar, and they don’t believe it’s appropriate for the state to pay off this private debt. They are working on legislation to reset the relationship with the foundation,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh told WBEZ in a prepared statement.
How that decision will impact the foundation’s plans to auction off Lincoln artifacts this year isn’t clear. The organization declined to comment on the new development from the governor’s office.
Manar said he was uncertain whether the foundation would move ahead with an auction or where it would now turn for cash to pay down its loan. But he expressed confidence that a “positive outcome” could be reached without use of taxpayer dollars.
“The debt for the artifacts has to be paid off. No one wants to see those artifacts end up on an auction block. So, that means we all have to work together to get it done. There are many ways to do that. But I think the governor has appropriately put some limitations on what potential taxpayer dollars can and can’t be used for,” Manar said.
“The debt was incurred by a private foundation, albeit for items that I think any of us would say are important to the state’s history. But at the end of the day, it was incurred by a private foundation, and that obligation should be fulfilled by the foundation, and I support the governor’s position on that,” he said.
Relations have been strained between the foundation and museum in part because of questions surrounding the authenticity of the stovepipe hat that the foundation says belonged to Lincoln. That hat, billed by the foundation as one of three hats once owned by Lincoln, was the cornerstone of its 2007 purchase.
But the story of how a southern Illinois farmer came into possession of the hat in the late 1850s or early 1860s has taken on different iterations. Last fall, WBEZ reported that the foundation, in a bid to authenticate the hat, secretly sought expert advice on it from historians at the Smithsonian and Chicago History Museum and, later, a DNA test by the FBI. Neither confirmed links to Abraham Lincoln.
“For an artifact of such prominence, and one that the museum wishes to highlight and promote, the current documentation is insufficient to claim that the hat formerly belonged to President Abraham Lincoln,” historians Harry Rubenstein and Russell Lewis wrote in a once-secret assessment from 2013 obtained by WBEZ.
Rubenstein was chair and curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s Division of Political History, and Lewis was executive vice president and chief historian at the Chicago History Museum. Lewis died in April.
Those efforts at authentication by the foundation were not revealed to the public or, for some time, to the current museum staff even as the facility was displaying the hat as a cherished and legitimate piece of Lincolniana. The discovery of those attempts undercut relations between the museum and foundation.
The foundation incorporated in 2000 to help begin acquiring artifacts for the museum, which opened its doors in 2005. In its most recent publicly available tax filing, the foundation reported assets of $32.8 million and liabilities of $10.5 million.
A GoFundMe page the foundation established last year to help repay the debt has only raised $34,624, a mere fraction of its $9.7 million goal.
The foundation’s board is stocked with some of Illinois’ best-known social and political leaders, including former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar; Chaz Ebert, widow of Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert; and Julie Cellini, wife of longtime Illinois political powerbroker and convicted influence peddler William Cellini. Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin also is an honorary director on the foundation’s board.
Taper, who owned the Lincoln artifacts purchased by the foundation, no longer sits on the board.
Dave McKinney covers state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.