Even in our fractious, ill-tempered times, we can all come together to agree on this: $6 million is a lot to pay for a hat. That’s true even if the hat is a stovepipe model that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln. If it turns out not to have belonged to Lincoln, well then, the $6 million really does begin to look like a serious extravagance. And if you borrowed the $6 million to pay for the hat that you later discover probably isn’t Lincoln’s, the whole deal could quickly swell from extravagance to calamity.
And so it might be doing now, in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s hometown and the site of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Two years after the museum opened in 2005, its sponsoring foundation borrowed $25 million to buy the Taper collection, at the time the largest collection of Lincoln stuff in private hands. Louise Taper, the eponymous collector, had, over the previous 30 years, acquired artifacts that one expert refers to, in nontechnical language, as “the superstars.”
Among her 1,500 items were Lincoln’s billfold and his eyeglasses, his favorite pen, and the gloves he wore to Ford’s Theatre the night of his murder, still flecked with blood. She owned the earliest known sample of his handwriting, a leaf torn from a schoolbook. She even owned the chamber pot he used in the White House. And the hat too—as inseparable from the Lincoln image as the whiskers, and one of only three, it was said at the time, that were known to have survived from his day to ours. An assessment placed the value of the hat alone at more than $6 million.