This document, authored by Nathan Raab, was first published on his blog on Forbes.com at http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2014/06/16/everyone-thought-this-abraham-lincoln-document-was-authentic/.
Everyone Thought This Abraham Lincoln Document Was Authentic
This Abraham Lincoln document offers a cautionary tale for anyone interested in the authenticity of anything: never assume . The piece, dated February of 1865 and illustrated below, is famous. It has provenance that a collector or dealer would covet. It came from a renowned collection, one of the great Lincoln archives of the 20th century, compiled by respected private collector Oliver R. Barrett. Barrett’s estate sold it at Parke-Bernet Galleries, now Sothebys, in 1939 with no small amount of fanfare. Carl Sandburg went so far as to illustrate this exact piece in his book, Abraham Lincoln, The War Years. When you compare Sandburg’s published version with this piece, it is clear that they are not just similar. They are identical. Sandburg must have used this very document. It is now published in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, a comprehensive list of his known correspondence, which notes its Barrett provenance.
This week, I opened a catalog of a rare book dealer on the West Coast and saw this very letter, published and illustrated once again. I had never seen the original but there it was in front of me, just as Barrett must have seen it nearly a century ago.
This was at first glance an exciting find. Short of seeing Lincoln holding the original, better provenance would be hard to find. Countless people have read Sandburg’s book and Lincoln’s published works, seen the image Sandburg used. The presumption has always been that it is authentic.
So what is the piece? Lincoln’s clemency is lauded today as a sign of his character. Throughout the war, he brought a soft heart to stories of deserters and to sad tales spun by mothers of young men sent to die for the Union cause. He pardoned many, a sign of his compassionate nature. These stories help make him into a three-dimensional figure in the eyes not only of historians but of collectors, who seek out such this personal touch.
The document in question purports to demonstrate this legendary clemency. Hiram Hibbard, accused of desertion, would have called on Lincoln in person, as was possible at the time, and received the President’s pardon. It reads: “To-day Hiram Hibbard calls voluntarily under apprehension of being punished as a deserter. Now on condition that he faithfully serves out his term Co A. in 50th N. Y. Engineers, he is fully pardoned for any supposed desertion.”
Now this piece was in front of me, and immediately I saw a real problem. It just did not look “right.” The handwriting weaved and bobbed, up then down, in a way that is uncommon in Lincoln letters. The flow was awkward, stilted, and not customary. It was shaky, and although Lincoln’s hand could be shaky, this was irregularly so, which we often see in forgeries. It feels as if the writer is uncertain; some of the letters are not formed correctly or completely. The date seems artificially crunched. There was printed letterhead at the time, but Lincoln did occasionally also hand-write “Executive Mansion.” However, here he had either misspelled it or left out the “x” in “Executive.” These are just a few of the red flags.
The Raab Collection once had an authentic piece using a similar format once. I illustrate it here for comparison. One has the right feel; the other does not.
There are many tests a document must pass to be comfortably deemed authentic. We examine the paper, ink, context, handwriting, provenance, etc… But the first test is the “feel test.” And this one failed within minutes. It did not “feel” right, no matter how much provenance or fame the letter had acquired. We spoke to the scholars at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill, and others whose opinions we respect. They all concurred, the seller, a respected and knowledgeable book dealer, included: a forgery.
This opened up a host of questions for us. Did this forger have access to an original that no longer exists or is the entire piece fabricated from imagination? Hiram Hibbard appears to have been a real person. He was pardoned, and there are apparently records that attest to this. That would argue for the existence of another, a real version from which the forger worked; but where is that document if the forgery has been accepted as the original for so long? How could so many knowledgeable people accept this piece as authentic?
This Abraham Lincoln document offers a cautionary tale for anyone interested in the authenticity of anything: never assume. Trust but verify, as President Reagan might say.
In this case, I suppose that the collective acceptance of this apparent forgery as authentic is based on Barrett’s provenance, the readiness of all around to trust this respected collector’s opinion. This is akin to thinking the more certificates of authenticity the better. That is all “trust” and no “verify.”
More than one person has attempted to sell us a forged document with 2 or 3 certificates of authenticity. This is a convenient but insufficient replacement for the more difficult work of starting from scratch and authenticating something based on its merits. This Lincoln letter came with a back story that managed to convince many not only that it was real but also that it was worth a lot of money. And in the end, it is a presumptive forgery, a decent one but not great. A certificate printed on computer paper is not the ultimate arbiter. Historical documents tell their own stories and each is waiting to be told.
Never assume. That’s a lesson worth learning.