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Abraham Lincoln Museum Board Members Want DNA Testing On $6.5 Million Stovepipe Hat

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 19, 2013 5:00PM

There’s a scandal brewing regarding arguably the most recognizable presidential fashion statements: Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill. announced last month it was placing a stovepipe hat that was part of a $23 million purchase of Lincoln artifacts five years ago on display. The hat, believed to have been worn by Lincoln during one of his 1858 debates against Stephen Douglas, was said to have been given by Lincoln to William Waller, a supporter of the nation’s 16th President, and stayed in the family over the ensuing decades.

But members of the Illinois Historic Preservation Society, which oversees the Lincoln Library, have called on the Illinois State Police to use DNA testing to authenticate the $6.5 million hat that was purchased by board member Louise Taper. (Taper recused herself from voting to buy her collection for the museum, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.) Taper provided a letter of authenticity explaining the hat's trail of ownership, which the Sun-Times questioned, sparking the debate.

Board member Tony Leone told NPR, “I think we have a credibility gap with this hat.” Adding fuel to the fire is a financial analysis of the Taper collection from New York-based antiquities dealer Seth Kaller that board members believe failed to authenticate the hat. The Abraham Lincoln Foundation for months fought a request by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency to obtain a copy of Kaller’s appraisal; the museum released the report late Friday.

Kaller wouldn’t wade into the debate over the hat’s authenticity, but wrote it was “generally accepted” the hat belonged to Lincoln.

“The items in this collection have already been inspected and authenticated,” Kaller wrote. “The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has indicated that, based on prior in-depth research, it is comfortable with the provenance and descriptions provided. I have therefore made my valuations based on accepting the provenance information provided to me at the start of this project.”

That isn’t enough for board members like Leone. But Lincoln Library Museum curator James Cornelius said testing the DNA of a 160-year-old hat would be as inconclusive as the appraisal.