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Piercing questions about Mary Todd Lincoln's earrings' history

There's no doubt that the pair of apparently gold-mounted black onyx pendant earrings are old.

But there is doubt that they were ever owned by former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Yet the Kentucky Historical Society, as part of the state's Abraham Lincoln bicentennial celebration, has been displaying and publicizing them as hers, going so far as to say on its Web site that "Mary Todd Lincoln prized these 'earbobs.'"

The earrings, each bearing hand-painted figures of a man and a woman, were purchased by the Historical Society in late 2008 for more than $19,000 through Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas.

Historical Society Executive Director Kent Whitworth said that, in the society's best professional judgment, the earrings did once belong to Mary Todd Lincoln.

"We are thrilled with the acquisition of those earrings," he said.

But others aren't as sure about the earrings' authenticity.

Documents on file at the Historical Society that came with the earrings trace them back to well-known collector Charles F. Gunther of Chicago, who died in 1920. Gunther told the son of the man to whom he sold or traded the earrings that "he knew they were Mrs. Lincoln's earrings but he couldn't remember why he knew it," the son's daughter wrote in a letter in 1970 to another collector who had purchased the earrings from her family. The letter is among the documents in the Historical Society file.

"That's not much of a provenance," said Thomas Schwartz, director of research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

"They're similar to other kinds of jewelry that Mary bought, but I think that's about as far as you can go," said Schwartz, who is also the Illinois state historian.

He said that Gunther, a confectioner who collected many types of artifacts, some of which are now owned by the Chicago History Museum, had many fine things in his collection, but he also claimed to have skin shed by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Schwartz said more information connecting the earrings to Lexington native Mary Todd Lincoln is needed before it can be said the earrings once belonged to her.

"It's not enough that a collector has a hunch, especially if he can't even provide the person that he purchased it from," he said.

Some collectors buy on impulse, Schwartz added. "Their collecting passion overrides their common sense. They buy it hoping that in the future they'll be proven to be right in their instincts."

Gunther told Forest H. Sweet, the son of Forest G. Sweet, who obtained the earrings from Gunther, that he was sure the younger Sweet would live to prove that the earrings were Mary Todd Lincoln's, according to the letter from the younger Sweet's daughter, Julia Sweet Newman of Battle Creek, Mich.

Forest H. Sweet found as his proof a particular photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln wearing earrings. But she is not wearing the same pendant earrings in a photograph of her that accompanied the Historical Society's purchase.

That discrepancy was pointed out to Historical Society officials by a reporter, and the auction house through which the Historical Society bought the earrings has asked the family that owned the earrings at the time of the 2008 auction to look for the correct photograph. At the time of the 2008 sale, the earrings were in the estate of Dr. John K. Lattimer, who had purchased them from the Sweets through a dealer in 1968. Lattimer, a famous urologist who died in 2007, collected Lincoln artifacts.

Tom Slater, director of Heritage Auction Galleries' Americana department and supervisor of the sale through which the Historical Society bought the earrings, said Lattimer was disorganized in the last years of his life, and a lot of items in his collection that belonged together got separated. Slater said he suspects the correct photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln got separated from the earrings.

But, he said, "There's really absolutely no reason to question those earrings just because of the photograph."

Jonathan Mann, who consulted with the auction house on the earrings before they were sold to the Historical Society, went a step further.

"I have no qualms that the earrings are Mary Lincoln's. I think it's entirely likely that they are, in fact, the very pair she wore to Ford's Theatre the night of the assassination, which certainly makes them much more valuable," said Mann, president of The Rail Splitter, an organization of Lincoln collectors, dealers and scholars based in New York.

Gunther purchased numerous pieces of Mary Todd Lincoln's clothing and accessories, including the veil, cloak and bonnet she wore to Ford's Theatre on the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, from Elizabeth Keckly, Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, Mann told Heritage Auction Galleries in a letter written after questions arose about the photograph.

Mann's letter does not say Gunther purchased the earrings from Keckly.

Julienne Foster, the Historical Society's museum registrar and chairwoman of its accession committee at the time the society bought the earrings, said Historical Society officials did not bring the earrings to the accession committee, which usually vetted and approved all items being added to the museum collection. She is no longer with the Historical Society.

The provenance, or documentation of the history, of the earrings is not very solid, she said.

"I think there's no direct connection with those earrings to Mary Todd Lincoln," she said.

But Whitworth said he was satisfied with research that went into the purchase.

"I feel good about the process. I feel good about the research that was done," he said. "We're really excited to have this and other Lincoln items in our collection now."

Robert Rich, who recently became president of the Kentucky Historical Society executive committee board, is not so sure that buying the earrings was a good idea.

"They are old earrings, but whether they're Mary Todd Lincoln's earrings, I don't think there's any certainty of that. It may have been a professional mistake to buy these things without much provenance," he said.

Rich said the Historical Society had nothing that had belonged to the former first lady for the bicentennial celebration and was eager to obtain something of hers to display. Society management had the earrings vetted by experts, he said.

In addition to the authenticity of the earrings, questions have arisen about modifications that have been made to them.

Hooks for pierced ears that were originally part of the earrings were replaced with ear screws so Newman's mother could wear them. The original hooks were lost.

"You'd like to keep things in the original state," Schwartz said. "It does affect the integrity of the item, not necessarily its historical importance."

Newman noted in her letter to Lattimer that Gunther was elderly when he sold or traded the earrings to her grandfather.

"What a pity some men don't record information when they are young and can remember!" she wrote. "My father was guilty of this neglect too; he left no written records of any kind."

Forest H. Sweet had tried to sell the earrings to auto magnate Henry Ford for $2,500 in the 1930s, his daughter wrote in another letter to Lattimer. A copy of a packing slip from Ford Motor Co. bearing the name of Ford's son, Edsel, indicates the earrings' return to Sweet.

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