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Debt forces hunt for Lincoln-item auctioneers

In this June 14, 2007 photo, Abraham Lincoln's iconic stovepipe hat is seen at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- The hunt for auctioneers to settle a $9.7 million debt by selling off parts of a valuable collection of Lincoln artifacts, including an iconic stovepipe hat and gloves bloodied the night he was assassinated, began Wednesday, but the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation cautioned a sale isn't imminent.

The foundation voted in a private meeting to begin seeking an auction house to dispose of parts of the Taper collection of 1,400 items related to Lincoln in a move that foundation CEO Carla Knorowski said is necessary to meet the debt's due date, not as a tactic to scare up state funding.

But state officials, including the representative who holds the Illinois House seat in which the 16th president began his political career, raised questions about the timing of the foundation's action and cautioned there's still time before Lincoln lore is shipped out Illinois' door.

The top hat purportedly belonging to the Great Emancipator and the blood-stained kid gloves are the crown jewels of an extraordinary bevy which also includes the quill pen left on Lincoln's desk when he died; his presidential seal, replete with wax left on it from its last use; a book with his earliest known writings; notes between Lincoln and his wife, Mary; and Lincoln White House china.

"Lincoln is an economic engine. He always has been," Knorowski told The Associated Press. "He's what people look for, he's who people look to. To this day, they ask, 'What would Lincoln do?' These items, whether it's the hat or the gloves or a lock of his hair, they tell the story of the leader among leaders."

The $25 million collection was purchased in 2007 by borrowing $23 million -- Taper donated $2 million worth of items. There's a $9.7 million balance due in October 2019 on a loan that's been re-financed and has strained the patience of private contributors. While no one wants to see Illinois lose any of the items, Knorowski said, the process for preparing to sell has to begin now. It took ten months to arrange and auction off Taper-collection items which belonged to movie star Marilyn Monroe.

Rep. Tim Butler, the Springfield Republican who represents largely the same area Lincoln did in the House for four terms beginning in 1834 , isn't convinced the move is necessary.

"This is a really bad sign that they've started these proceedings," Butler said. "I realize they've got to do some planning, but I would hope that the foundation wouldn't move to that step until the absolutely last minute."

There's no question that the brash action serves as a wake-up call to anyone, including state officials, who might think it couldn't happen. It could bolster foundation hopes to tap $5 million in tourism promotion funds -- paid for by hotel occupancy taxes -- that could serve as a "challenge" grant to inspire private contributors to put up the rest.

"After 11 years of fundraising for a specific campaign, there comes a point at which you have donor fatigue," Knorowski said. "They need a new song, they need a new angle. ... A tourism grant would break the logjam."

Butler called turning to the state budget a "last step" after the foundation has "exhausted every avenue."

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, noted the idea for tax dollars is coming from a board "which the state government does not control, nor has a voice in, nor has an opportunity to review all their books."

"The taxpayers probably have a lot of questions," Schuh said.

Interim steps on debt reduction have shown good faith, if few dollars. The nine items associated with the late movie star Marilyn Monroe, including a dress that sold for $50,000 in June, were auctioned in Las Vegas. A foundation staff member started a crowdsourcing GoFundMe campaign , which has raised just over $10,000 from 213 people.

The foundation will request proposals from auction houses and interview bidders for their expertise and suggestions on how to set up a sale, Knorowski said. She said how quickly one would be hired and in place to begin the auction process would depend in part on the auctioneer. A Taper-collection sale could involve more than one auction house, she said.

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