The below piece was first published on Nathan Raab’s column in Forbes at:
Last month, as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library appeared to be considering selling Abraham Lincoln’s iconic stovepipe hat, we learned something unsettling: experts could not reach a consensus that it actually belonged to Abraham Lincoln. The drama thickened, as the director of the museum apparently distanced himself from the fundraising apparatus, over concerns stemming from this.
A previous outside report existed, which, in 2013, noted that the provenance (or where something came from) was “insufficient to claim” that this was Abraham Lincoln’s hat. Lincoln had allegedly given the hat in 1858 to an early supporter and farmer, William Waller, who had passed it down and for a few generations it remained with the family. The story, with the object, was passed down as well. By the time it was sold by the family, Louis Taper, a prominent collector of all things Lincoln, had evidently acquired the hat, the story had morphed, and the hat had been given to Waller a few years later during the Civil War, later than the first version. The extraordinary step of taking DNA from the hat proved inconclusive.
But let’s return to the family lore. In our world, we refer to things having “authenticity” and “solid provenance.” With autographs and historical documents, such as a letter of Abraham Lincoln, you don’t need the provenance to prove authenticity. An expert, in looking at the context, the ink, the paper, and the handwriting can determine in most cases whether it is authentic in the absence of any provenance story. In fact, while provenance stories in these cases can be interesting and helpful, particularly in dealing with ownership, they can also be used in elaborate ways to cover up other inconsistencies that might indicate a fake.
But with objects, such as Lincoln’s hat or John Kennedy’s rocking chair, provenance is the essential ingredient. And that can be difficult to establish.
When I was a kid, my siblings, cousins, and I used to play whisper down the lane. I would whisper some phrase into my brother’s ear and he would do that and each person down the line likewise until it reached the last person, who would repeat the phrase. It was invariably badly mangled, often in exaggerated fashion, each child wanting to add their own flare. Family stories, or lore, are generally a lot like that, except that the person who whispered the original phrase is dead. And as things get passed down, from one generation to the next, the story is likely to grow, not shrink. It’s in everyone’s interest that the story get better.
We deal with this all the time. A direct descendant of the family of William Henry Harrison told us that a later ancestor had been friendly with Lincoln and had been given some plates from the White House that had been used by President and Mrs. Lincoln. What they really had were reproductions bought before their time but after Lincoln’s. Or the girl whose father had seen and met the Beatles and gotten their autographs in person, excited to give his daughter a gift. The real story was not so exciting. Neil Aspinall, their road manager, had ducked into a back room and signed their names for them. So of the principal elements of the story he had told his daughter, only one was true. He had seen the Beatles, but he had not met them, nor did he have their autographs.
The issue of provenance becomes even harder when you consider the steps that would be necessary to prove an object’s authenticity. What if a picture existed of Lincoln wearing this hat? How would you prove it was this hat and not a similar one or a reproduction? The existence of identical stains or imperfections would help, I suppose. Or a letter of Lincoln saying, in effect, “Thanks for supporting me. Here’s my hat.” That would be great, too, but could the letter and hat have been separated over time? Is this the same hat? In this case, a DNA match would have been nearly conclusive. But the skeptic might have suggested that it was someone else’s hat that Lincoln had tried on? I suppose it’s not likely but it is possible.
These stories abound. The families rarely question the narrative that has been given them. And they do so for the same reason that we don’t question the narratives of objects we see in museums or on television: we want to believe.
I was over a friend’s house many years ago and he showed me a letter of Lincoln he had bought. He told me that he bought it impulsively and loved it. “But don’t tell me if it’s real. I don’t want to know.” I remember that statement because it shines a light on this episode and how we experience history. He didn’t want to know because it would have meant that the emotional energy he had devoted to own something touched by Lincoln had been given to a fake. All those years spent passing by it, drawing inspiration from it, would be diminished to a foolish decision.
I have no idea if the stovepipe hat belonged to Lincoln. It may very well have been his prized hat. But I fear we will never know for sure. And this is not an uncommon issue when dealing with historical objects. I suspect that many such objects of questionable provenance are littered through the world’s institutional collection.
But does that matter? In a broad historical sense, we have emotional reasons to want to believe. These objects bind us more than just historically to great men and women of the past. They bind our hearts. The loss of that connection, learning something isn’t what it purports to be, is felt more deeply, as if that person’s death became more proximate, that bond weaker.
James Cornelius, the Lincoln library’s curator in 2013, five years ago called DNA tests on the hat “even worse than a bad idea.” This was a historical artifact and his legacy, embodied in the hat, was larger than the object.
So, if a sale occurs, they may yet find willing buyers. The hat previously sold for more than $6 million, according to reports. Is it worth that much or more if it “might have been” Lincoln’s hat or even is “likely” Lincoln’s hat? The market will dictate that. After all, witness the 2017 sale of a painting marketed as the product of Leonardo Da Vinci. Experts very publicly questioned its authenticity and yet it shattered auction records. People were willing to push aside those questions. And I believe the reason is the same with that Lincoln letter: we want to believe.