The Kentucky Historical Society has been displaying and publicizing a pair of earrings as having belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln, but others aren't as sure about their authenticity.
The pair of apparently gold-mounted black onyx pendant earrings were purchased by the Historical Society in 2008 for more than $19,000 through Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported Sunday.
Historical Society Executive Director Kent Whitworth said that, in the society's best professional judgment, the earrings did once belong to Lincoln.
"We are thrilled with the acquisition of those earrings," he said.
The Historical Society has even said on its Web site that "Mary Todd Lincoln prized these 'earbobs.'"
Earrings traced to Chicago collector
Documents on file at the Historical Society that came with the earrings trace them to collector Charles F. Gunther of Chicago, who died in 1920, the newspaper reported. 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," according to a letter written in 1970 to another collector who had purchased the earrings.
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 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.
Jonathan Mann, who consulted with the auction house on the earrings before they were sold to the Historical Society, said, "I have no qualms that the earrings are Mary Lincoln's."
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 Abraham Lincoln bicentennial celebration and was eager to obtain something of hers to display. Society management had the earrings vetted by experts, he said.
Besides 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. 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."