Lincoln note draws feds' attention
Federal agency probing signed document found in Silver Spring home
A historical document signed by Abraham Lincoln ? which a Maryland business owner discovered in a Silver Spring home ? has become a lightning rod in a battle over whether the item belongs to the federal government.
Laurie Zook, owner of Frederick estate sales services company Mission: Transition, found the treasure trove of documents a few months ago while preparing items for sale for a client. The items included two hand-signed notes by Lincoln and a rare entry pass to Lincoln's funeral at the White House on April 19, 1865.
The documents were posted on an online auction last month with Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services of South Milwaukee, Wis. One note signed by Lincoln attracted a final bid of $11,364 when the auction ended Feb. 27. Bidding on the other Lincoln note was up to almost $5,000 when it was withdrawn a few days before the auction ended, Zook said today.
"That one was about 20 percent higher than the other one when it was pulled off," Zook said. "The bids tend to go up exponentially on the last day, so it could have gone up a lot higher."
Officials with the federal National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., which preserves and documents government and historical records, called the auctioneer to request that the document be taken off the auction as the agency investigates whether the item should have been part of the government's collection, Paul Brachfeld, the agency's inspector general, said today.
The note in question appears to have an official government stamp on it, while the other Lincoln note apparently does not, Brachfeld said.
"It may be an item that may have been in our records at some point," he said of the stamped document.
If federal officials think such documents are stolen, they usually send agents to retrieve it, Brachfeld said. However, that does not appear to be the case with this document, he said.
If officials believe the document belongs to the government but was not stolen, they generally undertake another process similar to eminent domain, Brachfeld said. They historically do not compensate finders in such cases, but will allow them to make a tax-exempt donation, he said.
"We're keeping it friendly on our part," Brachfeld said, adding that the investigation is ongoing.
Zook said she has been told by the auctioneer that the document is in a secure place. She believes she and her client deserve some compensation, as she cited the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, in part, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
"These documents were basically sitting in a house for years," Zook said. "They were abandoned. They essentially didn't exist until I discovered them."
Zook said she plans to cooperate with federal officials but might insist that she has the opportunity to sell the document to an individual who will then donate it to the National Archives.
Troy R. Kinunen, president and CEO of Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services, declined to comment, referring questions to Zook.
The entry pass to Lincoln's funeral at the White House ? believed to be one of only 600 printed ? fetched a final bid of $5,701. Documents that Zook found bearing the signatures of two other presidents, Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland, attracted bids of $288 and $139, respectively. A letter signed by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt received a bid of $115.
What made the auctioned Lincoln note "especially rare" was that it related to a major in the U.S. Colored Troops, who served during the Civil War, according to the online auction site.
"The historic association of Lincoln to the [U.S. Colored Troops] is almost unprecedented in publicly offered Lincoln signatures," the site said. "This provides a very rare opportunity."
The Silver Spring house had sat vacant for about a decade and was owned by descendants of a Washington socialite family who had been acquainted with the Lincolns, Zook said. The present owner, a woman in her 80s, responded to one of Zook's business advertisements, hiring her to go through the house and sell off furniture and other items, she said.
The bulk of the proceeds from the sale of the Lincoln documents will go to the family, although Zook's company gets a commission. The owner of the house, whom Zook declined to identify, didn't realize what was in that bedroom closet, which Zook said is not too unusual.
Zook said she does not know if the house has sold or not, as she is not involved in that process.