Prizing History


Lehrman : Dick and I shared common beliefs. It was thé age of Jimmy Carter, pessimism, malaise, stagflation, and Henry Kissinger and the theory of American decline. We wanted America to grow again.

But when did you decide “let’s collect together”? That’s quite a leap.

Gilder : All of that started, really, thanks to Professor Gabor Boritt, of Gettysburg College. He had heard of Lew’s interest in things Lincolnian. He also knew that Lew was a wealthy drugstore magnate, so he conceived of a Lincoln Prize and asked Lew to fund it. Lew asked me to help, and the prize became the impetus for joint collecting.


Lehrman : From the time I was in graduate school I had collected historical manuscripts. You could buy interesting things for only a few dollars in the late fifties and early sixties. For me, it was always all about Lincoln and the American founders. By 1990 Dick and I had created the Lincoln Prize, and we began full-bore together in collecting. The really important juncture was Dick’s inspiration that this modest exercise I’d begun should become a major effort to collect American historical documents and make them available to history teachers. It all took on a completely different scale when this eight-hundred-pound gorilla over here …

Gilder : I was no collector. I had once bought a Stonewall Jackson Bible that had Jackson’s pencil scribbling in it, and people loved it. A few people even got married with it. But that was about it. I did support battlefield preservation, hut 1 didn’t have the patience to collect anything, really, except money. Then, one day, after Lew had begun speaking to Gabor Boritt, he called me and said, “Why don’t you join me on a trip to Gettysburg?” Later we were having lunch, and he said, “You know, collecting battlefields is nice, but collecting documents is really important . With a little support the battlefields will stay there whether you collect them or not. But this could be the last chance to put together something really big and important.” And, frankly, he talked to me about the speculative aspect, which 1 admit is always nine-tenths of what I’m interested in. I don’t have the knowledge Lew has, but I sensed this was a huge opportunity. Lew organized the team.

Lehrman : It was clear to me that there were a substantial number of great American documents still in private hands that were not being made available to scholars, students, and teachers.

So you pooled resources and went on the trail?

Lehrman : Starting in 1990, Dick and I, plus Paul Romaine, an outstanding curator and archivist, and a dealer named Seth Kaller, organized an enterprise reaching out to every dealer in the English-speaking world. Neither Dick nor I have ever been to an auction, but we’ve got very able and trusted people working for us. Systematically, over ten years now, we’ve assembled a collection of fifty thousand items, among them manuscripts, treaties, letters, maps, newspapers, material on early photography in America, and images of Lincoln, Grant, and Sheridan, among many others.

Gilder : Lew adopted a kind of classic financial posture: He stormed the market. It was his strategy, which I endorsed, to push prices up suddenly so as to cause shock in the market and have a lot of documents become available, like leaves falling from trees. That’s precisely what occurred. He also set up a triple vetting system, to check carefully for forgeries. That’s when he happened to see my wonderful Stonewall Jackson Bible and said, “Where did you get that?” I mentioned the dealer, and Lew said, “Would you mind if we had this vetted too?” So of course it came back a complete forgery. I was worried. Should I at least tell the people who were married with it that it was a fake? But I haven’t. I hope by now the statute of limitations applies.

Lehrman : The Bible was right here in this very office. Dick took it out to show it to me. I didn’t say it then and there, but there’s an old saw among historical manuscript people that there are seven original Stonewall Jackson Bibles. It was always plausible that Dick’s was one of the seven- or one of seven hundred.

Gilder : One day Lew called about this important Jefferson bust by Houdon. He never called me for anything under a hundred thousand dollars, so I knew it was important. He warned me it was expensive. I said, “Lew, doesn’t this get us into a whole new realm? We’re supposed to be collecting maps and documents. But works of art? We’ll quadruple our scope and I’ll run out of money. I vote against it.” Naturally he bought it anyway. And from that has come even more enjoyment, including involvement with Monticello. It’s been a glorious association, all because Lew refuses to be reined in by good common sense.

Where do you keep fifty thousand items?

Lehrman : The collection is on deposit at the Morgan Library here in New York, where the director, Charles E. Pierce, Jr., and the head of literary and historical manuscripts, Robert Parks, do a lot to help make it available. But it’s still growing, and much more rapidly than people are aware, since we try to do our work as privately and confidentially as possible. If Dick and I get another twenty years on earth, I think the collection will be one of the great repositories for the study of American history.