Lincoln museum officials enlist phony Abe to address phony hat worries
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The Abe Lincoln in Springfield on Tuesday was definitely a fake.
The jury is still out on Abe’s beaver-fur stovepipe hat.
But the dwindling patience of state lawmakers was very real.
A Lincoln impersonator helped kick off the Illinois General Assembly’s fall veto session when he appeared before the House tourism committee along with officials of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation.
It was all part of an attempt to get state funds to help preserve artifacts connected to the 16th president and to remind state lawmakers that Lincoln’s legacy should extend beyond the controversial stovepipe hat.
“I commonly have carried my notes in my hat, but that appears to be a contentious issue right now so I shall forbear it,” the impersonator, Randy Duncan, said before reading his introductory statement.
The authenticity of the hat in question — a $6.5 million purchase for the museum made in 2007 — has been in question since a series of Chicago Sun-Times stories in 2012. A state historian said an ongoing investigation into the provenance of the hat is still inconclusive.
The stunt was part of an ask from the foundation for the state to help pay off a $9.7 million debt from a loan it took out to buy the hat, a pair of blood-stained leather gloves Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated, and other rare items in the Barry and Louis Taper Collection for the Lincoln Museum in Springfield. Museum officials even started a GoFundMe page and raised more than $30,000 — a small dent in the multi-million dollar goal. Foundation CEO Carla Knorowski said the GoFundMe is just one part of its fundraising, along with some seven-figure asks.
The request for money was met with sharp criticism from some lawmakers, who questioned the duties and salaries of foundation leaders as well as whether they had plans to recover the museum’s dropping attendance rates.
“Are you requesting that the taxpayers pay off this loan?” asked state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, calling the accumulation of debt “highly problematic.”
And state Rep. Tim Butler said it was a shame to have national outlets questioning the institution because of the questioned hat.
“I don’t know if you’re going to have state funding, I don’t hold the gavel and I’m not the governor, but I have a hard time going to bat for state funding in the current environment,” the Springfield Republican told foundation officials.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford, who’s now running for Chicago mayor, said he’s a member of the museum and regularly visits to take a photo with a Frederick Douglass statue. The West Side Democrat asked how the state could be sure that a taxpayer-funded grant would be used solely for paying off the debt that would save the historic artifacts.
Within 90 days of filling our financial obligation with the bank … we would then turn over the collection for ownership by the state in perpetuity,” Knorowski said.
Committee chair Ann M. Williams was not making any promises about state funding.
“Everyone agrees we have to do what’s needed to preserve the collection, we cannot afford to let that go,” the North Side Democrat said. “As far as what state resources would be utilized, none of that has been decided.”
Foundation officials also wanted to emphasize the collection was more than the scrutinized hat. Treasurer Sarah Phelan said a recent appraisal of 40 items showed a fair market value of $10 million.
The original loan in 2007 was $23 million. The foundation has paid $21 million, including $8 million in interest and is requesting the state pay the remaining $9.7 million. The foundation says if it can’t pay the balance by October 2019, it will have to auction items.