Lincoln Letter Fraud on Ebay

James M Cornelius

The seller wrote that the item had been authenticated and told it was worth $20,000, but he was going to start the bidding at 99-cents. Should that have aroused suspicions?

On 27 February 2010 a letter sold on eBay for a winning bid of $4,550. There were a total of 48 bids. The seller was in Hong Kong, and it was the seller’s first appearance on eBay. (In other words, “zero feedback.”) The item? An interesting 1860 let- work: the Lincoln to McClure letter by Lincoln to A.K. McClure of Philadelphia. The problem? The letter reposes in the vault of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, in Springfield, Illinois. I am the curator of that collection, and I went right to the vault Monday morning to see that the letter was still there, twenty years after we acquired it. I was not worried. It was and is in the vault. So what did this first-time seller, from an untouchable place, sell? It seems to have been a mocked up reproduction of whatever he or she printed off of a website that this institution operates. At that website, used mainly by schools in the U.S. and likely around the world, one can view scanned originals dealing with Illinois history, the Civil War, slavery, and Lincoln. Are these documents watermarked? They weren’t at the time the fraudulent seller downloaded the letter in question. But neither are those on the Library of Congress website. Should they be watermarked? Yes, of course, now that the horse is out of the barn, they should have been. Who is to blame that they were not – understaffed (and increasingly so) state-operated do-gooders trying to make originals and lesson plans available for researchers, teachers, and students? Perhaps. Or is the buyer (said to be in Florida) really to blame? Emptors who do not caveat – buyers who do not beware – often get swindled.

For Lincolnists, they should always check the free, online Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln which notes where the original resides, whether private or public hands. Had this letter been in private hands in 1953, well, probably it could be sold today. But in this case, a simple check there was not so simple. The Basler edition of 1953, upon which the online version is based, stated in an appendix to Volume 8 that the original of this letter to McClure was thought not to be extant. Had the text of the original appeared in either of the two printed supplements to Basler, published in 1974 and 1990, it would not appear in today’s online version anyway, since copyright restrictions prevent those supplements from being included online. Most people would not know that, and thus would miss the roughly five percent of Lincoln’s writings that were printed in those two supplements – and the other sparkles, gems, and ephemera from his pen discovered since 1990. So the seller in Hong Kong had done some home work: the Lincoln to McClure letter was not in the online Basler, not in either of the printed supplements, and cited only in a couple of out-of-the-way journal articles or books. It was viewable on a publicly supported website, though, and thus ripe for the picking. There is one other possibility at work here: the owner before 1990 had a professionally made reproduction of the letter, and that is what the Hong Kong seller sold, thinking it an original. Indeed, R. R. Donnelley and other fine printers did some excellent reproductions in the 1940s and 1950s, just to show that they could. A professional would not be fooled, but an attentive amateur could be. But for $4,550? Alternatively, a prospective buyer can make a couple of phone calls to major institutions and ask about a document. The McClure letter had been posted on eBay on Sunday, and we were open the entire week of its offer. I received no calls or emails about it till after the bidding closed.

Should public institutions monitor what is being offered on such merchants’ sites? Absolutely not. In Springfield, it is all we can do to manage our collection, put interesting (real) things into the museum, host author readings, answer calls and emails, hope that our state can find a way out of debt, etc. Should potential buyers monitor what is being offered with more care? You betcha. A low-level auction of 450 bits of Lincolniana in Virden, Illinois, held the day before the McClure letter appeared on eBay, drew a crowd of about 50. The one real Lincoln letter sold for an expected price. Half a dozen non-Lincoln letters – but touted by the cowboy-hatted auctioneer as being in Lincoln’s hand – sold for much less. At the sale itself or on the Monday following, four people who had bought things asked me if what they had just bought “is real.” I admire their caveat-seeking. But not their timing.

[The Author is Curator, Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.]

 

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