CHICAGO – 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 indicated Thursday 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 in a statement.
Officials sounded the alarm bell publicly after meeting with aides to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner this past week but “receiving no financial commitments.” The Lincoln officials added 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.
State government runs and funds the Lincoln library and museum. The separately run foundation raises private funds to support the 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.
The financial problems 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 are stained with blood spilled when he was assassinated.
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 own 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 across the globe.
Tony Leone, who once served on a historic preservation panel that had some oversight of the Lincoln library, maintained losing items because of an inability to make loan payments would give the state a “black eye.” Leone questioned whether the library or the foundation, which operates separately, 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 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.