Huge collection of Abraham Lincoln artifacts on auction

Two score and five years ago an 18-year-old Harold Holzer borrowed $150 from his father to acquire the first piece in a collection of Abraham Lincoln artifacts that until recently adorned almost every wall of his home.

"My wife's only admonition in our suburban home was: No Lincoln in the bedroom," Holzer said.

After item No. 1—an envelope on which Lincoln wrote his name to get free postage as a member of congress—Holzer waited until he married his wife and moved into a bare and empty apartment to add to his collection.

"A friend and mentor suggested Pennsylvania Dutch country," he said.

There in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, Holzer and his wife found both affordable furniture and so many of the prints, lithographs and paintings of the 16th president of the United States Holzer later drew upon as inspiration for the 52 books he has either written or edited about the man they call Honest Abe.

"Literally hanging on trees in this grove," Holzer said of how he found those artifacts.

Among his favorite items: A painting from 1860, when the American public wanted to know what the dark horse Republican presidential candidate looked like, and a print thrown from the balconies of a convention hall when Lincoln received the nomination.

Both of those pieces and 738 others from Holzer's collection now live at Swann Auction Galleries until Sept. 27, when four and a half decades of one man's collecting goes to auction.

"A massive compilation that's been acquired over a period of 50 years by one of the greatest Lincoln scholars in the country," Swann Auction Galleries American specialist Rick Stattler said of the collection he also called comprehensive and deep.

"I'm strangely unemotional about the loss," Holzer said.

We met Holzer in the apartment he would move out of later that day; its shelves empty; his socks—he says not worn for our interview but the last clean pair in the drawer—the last piece of Lincoln memorabilia he had left.

"Both acquisitions with my wife and acquisitions I didn't tell her about," he said.

Holzer and his wife are combining their life in the suburbs and their life in Manhattan in a new apartment, one without the space for 740 prints, busts and other depictions of Abraham Lincoln.

"Collecting is not an ownership thing," Holzer said.

Instead, Holzer sees himself as a temporary caretaker, one ready to pass along the history he assembled over a half century of collecting to a future steward in exchange for how he always justified his decades of hoarding to his wife.

"It will be an investment for our future and for our kids' future," Holzer said, "and I think that's the way it's going to turn out."

View the Harold Holzer Collection of Lincolniana

View the auction catalogue