Follow the Stories | Mobile, Alabama (2007)
Honestly Abe's Chairs?
Was this side chair once part of a set that sat in the Lincoln White House?
This lithograph print shows Lincoln sitting in a chair remarkably similar to the one Charlie brought to Mobile.
In this portrait by famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, Lincoln is shown seated in an armchair that seems to be similar to the side chairs owned by Charlie.
The print on the upholstery of the seat dates from the late 19th century.
Although Dean believes Charle's chair is from the Lincoln White House, he'd like to know more about its provenance.
For the last six months, an Alabama resident named Charlie has been searching for an answer to a historical question that may be worth $100,000 to him and his wife Janie. The quesion: Did the eight Victorian side chairs he owns once sit in the White House dining room during Abraham Lincoln's presidency?
At the Mobile, Alabama, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in the summer of 2006, Dean Failey, of Christie's in New York City, told Charlie that if the chairs had once resided in the Lincoln White House they might sell at auction for between $80,000 and $100,000 — or $10,000 to $12,500 per chair. If they are Victorian chairs that never sat around the Lincoln dining table, however, Dean says the value of the chairs plummets to roughly $4,000, or $500 each.
Did this set of dining chairs come from the Lincoln White House?
Where the Chairs Were Found
Charlie and Janie bought the chairs after wandering into a Greenville, South Carolina, antiques store on New Year's Day 20 years ago. Right from the get-go, Charlie learned that he might have more than a set of fine Victorian chairs. "We kept looking at these chairs, and the owner came back and said, 'You know about these chairs?' I said, 'No.' He told us Lincoln had owned them. My first reaction was that he was pulling my leg."
But then the store owner returned with a folder containing odd sales slips, a lithograph showing Lincoln sitting in a chair that looks remarkably similar to the chairs for sale, and newspaper articles, all providing a scatter-shot provenance that suggested that the antiques dealer might not be a huckster full of malarkey. One of the articles, dated May 17, 1962, was titled "Bethlehem Antique Dealer Possesses Chairs Once Owned by Mrs. Lincoln." It reported that Jacqueline Kennedy, while giving a television tour of the White House, had once requested the return of these Lincoln chairs.
Intrigued by such provenance, the couple weighed the purchase for a few hours, finally deciding to bring home the chairs that may have been part of American history. "We figured that if they weren't real, we didn't spend a fortune," Charlie says, "and if they were, we'd own something interesting." The couple paid $6,000 for the eight chairs, believed to be part of a set of 14.
Charlie and Janie put the chairs in their living room and, hoping for the best, kept people from sitting in them. "We've had antique chairs before," says Charlie, "and we learned the hard way about letting people sit in them."
The ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Appraisal
The chairs held up well until the summer of 2006 when the couple heard that the ROADSHOW was coming to Mobile, not too far from their current home. Charlie brought in a single chair, hoping that an appraiser could tell him once and for all if the set had been part of the Lincoln White House.
Dean Failey could see the close resemblance between the chair and one pictured in a 19th-century lithograph of Lincoln seated with his cabinet around a table. Lincoln and one of his cabinet members each appear to be sitting in armchairs while another cabinet member is seated in a side chair similar to Charlie's. But Dean wanted more. "Historical associations can indeed be very powerful," Dean explained to Charlie. "Of course, we have to prove them, almost set them in concrete. The history and line of descent of the chairs sounds indeed very plausible, and I think it's something that certainly can be followed up and confirmed and verified."
Hunting Down the Provenance
After the show, Charlie got to work. He called The Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and told them the news: he believed he had eight chairs from the Lincoln White House. Charlie spoke to a few people, who told him they couldn't authenticate Lincoln memorabilia and didn't express the enthusiasm he expected. Cindy Van Horn, the museum's acting collections manager, explained the reaction, saying that people call, e-mail, or mail the museum about "three times a week" during the year, hoping the museum can authenticate something they believe was owned by Abraham Lincoln. "In February," Van Horn says, citing the month of Lincoln's birthday, the queries come "almost every day."
Charlie searched elsewhere. He looked up photographs of Lincoln in the White House archives, and a few show Lincoln sitting in armchairs that resemble Charlie's side chairs. "Unfortunately," Charlie says, "there are no pictures of him sitting in one of the side chairs." In the archive, Charlie found photograph of Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, standing next to the armchair, which also suggests a connection to the Lincoln family.
A Connection to Civil War Photographer Matthew Brady
But Dean also told Charlie something that raised some doubts about the Lincoln provenance. Dean pointed out that in 2001 Christie's had sold an armchair for $20,000 that seemed to be from the same set as Charlie's. "The chair that sold in 2001 was owned by a famous Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady," Dean explained to Charlie, "who also photographed Lincoln and other notable people of the era." Could Charlie's chairs have belonged to Brady?
Charlie looked closely at the photographs online of Lincoln sitting in chairs that resemble his. "The photos don't say Lincoln is in the White House," Charlie says, "or in Brady's studio." Charlie also found other Brady portraits online that showed other people sitting in what looks to be the same chair that Lincoln is pictured in. Still, Charlie believes that the chairs are more than likely to have come from the White House, in part because he "can't imagine why a photographer would have a dining room set with 14 chairs in his studio."
Unbeknownst to Charlie, Dean also did some additional research after the Mobile ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. He learned the upholstery on the Brady chair sold by Christie's was exactly the same as that on the chairs Charlie had brought in, indicating they were chairs of the same set. Dean theorized that Robert Todd Lincoln, who most likely inherited the set, might have given one of the chairs to Brady as a thank-you gift for the historic photographs Brady took of his father. Dean speculates that the other Brady portraits using that chair might have also been taken at the White House, or after Brady received his armchair. Although Dean says he would feel comfortable advertising the chairs as being from the Lincoln White House, he'd like one more piece of provenance: documentation that shows when the chairs came to or left the White House.
When Charlie was informed of the connection Dean saw between his and Brady's chair, he said, "That's great news." Charlie planned on contacting Dean to see how to check on furniture that might have once resided at the White House. Even when he learns how to do that, though, Charlie doesn't know when he'll have time to take on the extra research. Lincoln may have been President, but Charlie has his own civic responsibilities: he was sworn in as mayor of his small Alabama town in December 2006. "I'm up to my eyeballs in municipal government," he says, a problem Lincoln, in his own way, would most likely have understood.
See the Mobile, Alabama (2007) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Furniture category:
A Match Made in Heaven (Or at Least New York) (Milwaukee, 2007)
Elk Antler ... and a Little Bit of Moose (Omaha, 2005)
A True Roux? (Reno, 2005)
Getting Your Furniture on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW (Providence, 2006)
A Cabinet Full of Eggs? (Philadelphia, 2007)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.
Abraham Lincoln image from the Library of Congress.