Lincoln letter auctioned for a record $3.4 million

Pete Sherman

Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 letter to Horace Mann’s widow, responding to her students’ request that he free slave children, was sold by Sotheby’s auction house in New York Thursday for $3,401,000, which the auction house said is a record for an American manuscript.

“We believe this to be an auction record not only for Lincoln, but for any presidential manuscript — indeed for any historical American manuscript,” said Selby Kiffer, senior vice president of Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department and the person in charge of the auction Thursday.

The identity of the buyer, who was bidding over the phone, has not been revealed. Kiffer said even he doesn’t know the buyer’s name.

However, Kiffer said, the Lincoln-Mann manuscript was purchased by a collector, not an investor.

“This is someone who fell in love with the letter,” Kiffer said.

“The previous record-holder, to my knowledge, was an 1865 manuscript of a Lincoln speech sold in the Forbes sale by Christie’s in March 2002 for a hammer price of $2,800,000 — or $3,086,000 with the buyer’s premium included,” Kiffer said.

“I don’t apologize for this price. This is best Lincoln document available for purchase in many, many years.”

According to Sotheby’s Web site, a commission of 12 percent is charged for purchases exceeding $500,000. That puts the hammer price (the winning bid) for the Lincoln-Mann letter at about $3 million.

Some Lincoln scholars in Springfield suspected the 1864 letter to Mary Tyler Peabody Mann would not fetch anywhere near the $3 million to $5 million the auction house was expecting.

But another local historian said never underestimate Sotheby’s.

“Sotheby’s is very good at this,” said Kim Bauer, director of the Lincoln Heritage Project in Decatur and the former curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

“Getting the word out, fanning interest. The psychology of auctions is always the same, whether it’s a farm auction in Girard or at the highest end. As an auction house, you push, you push and push and you get people interested and inflamed, and they have to have that piece. The only thing that’s different is the price tag.”

Kiffer said the last time a copy of the Gettysburg Address was sold was in 1962 — for $54,000. If one went up for sale today, he estimated it would go for $25 million to $50 million. At another Sotheby’s auction last year, Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein bought a copy of the Magna Carta for more than $21 million.

Lincoln’s letter was among 111 items Sotheby’s was selling Thursday as part of a collection of historic documents owned by the Dr. Small Trust. The collection included roughly 20 other Lincoln documents, one of which included the only known signature of Lincoln’s at Gettysburg. That was the second-highest sale, going for $937,000, including the commission.

Sotheby’s sold approximately 70 of the 111 items for a total of $5,649,326.

Kiffer said he thought the best value was the $937,000 paid for the Lincoln signature.

Bauer thought the best bang for the buck was the $25,000 paid for an 1862 letter by former President Millard Fillmore in which he called Lincoln a “tyrant.”

“The much more interesting letter was Fillmore’s,” Bauer said. “(The buyer) got a very good deal. Maybe the steal of the auction.”

Pete Sherman can be reached at (217) 788-1539.