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Case history
Marylander donates Lincoln's briefcase to museum

llinois state historian Thomas Schwartz recalled the first thing he said on the phone when a man named Tom Heyser called him a few months ago.

"Mr. Heyser, are you the son of Estella Heyser?" Schwartz asked.

He was. About 20 years ago, Estella Heyser had written to the Illinois State Historical Library concerning a few things of hers she thought the library might want to purchase - Abraham Lincoln's presidential briefcase among them, the one in which he likely carried working drafts of his Emancipation Proclamation and second inaugural address.

The briefcase was arguably one of the most valuable Lincoln artifacts still in private hands - until Tom Heyser called Schwartz, setting in motion a process that ended Tuesday. That's when Heyser, his wife and son were in Springfield for a ceremony marking their donation of the briefcase and other Lincoln-related artifacts to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

In addition to the briefcase, the Heysers donated a dress owned by Mary Todd Lincoln and Lincoln-monogrammed pillow cases and handkerchiefs.

Estella Heyser and her husband, Albert, were housekeepers for Robert Todd Lincoln and his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, during the 1920s and '30s for about 10 years. As tokens of appreciation, the Heysers inherited the items their son handed off Tuesday.

Albert Heyser died in 1982, and Estella in 1988. Robert Todd Lincoln died in 1926; his wife, in 1937.

There's little doubt the Lincoln briefcase, also called a document portfolio, is authentic, according to Schwartz. It was part of a 1959 Smithsonian exhibit marking Lincoln's 150th birthday - the last time it was in public view.

The front of the weathered, leather portfolio has "Abraham Lincoln" stamped in gold leaf. All Cabinet members were given such cases, where they often stored letters and speeches.

Lincoln's dates back to the time when he would have been hammering out some of his most famous phrases, such as "With malice toward none."

The ceremony took place downtown at the not-yet-completed Abraham Lincoln Museum. Construction workers were there, too, as the Heysers were flanked by Mayor Tim Davlin, Illinois first lady Patti Blagojevich and library/museum director Richard Norton Smith, all of whom took part in unveiling the briefcase and light-pink and white dress.

Smith said the briefcase will eventually be showcased within the museum's "holy of holies," a exhibit space at the center of the building shaped like a huge stovepipe hat that will also house an original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Also unveiled Tuesday was the library and museum's new logo, designed by David Brodsky, a graphic designer in Springfield and creative director for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Smith, Schwartz and others said the donations will go down as among the most valuable in the library's premier 47,000-item collection of Lincoln artifacts.

Mary Lincoln's dress is one of only a few known to have survived. The Smithsonian has one, the Chicago Historical Society has two, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library will now have three, plus part of her wedding dress.

Chances are good that the Heyser dress was designed by Lincoln's seamstress and confidant, Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who also made clothing for the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis when he was a U.S. senator before the Civil War.

The Heysers had the briefcase appraised before donating it. Tom Heyser wouldn't reveal the exact estimate, but said it was for more than $300,000.

Heyser, a motorcycle salesman who lives in Maryland, said many of his friends didn't even know about the family treasure that was once almost destroyed when a water pipe burst four feet from the briefcase, which he had been storing in the basement.

State historians say the appraised value is difficult to assess. In 1992, Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses both sold Lincoln documents for $1.5 million and $1.3 million, respectively.

The museum portion of the Abraham Lincoln presidential complex is scheduled to open in the spring of 2005. The library is supposed to open by the end of September.

Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

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