Lincoln Portrait Fraud

by, Spencer Howard

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum presented a program by art conservator Barry Bauman entitled “The Demise of Mary Lincoln: An Artistic Conspiracy.” In short, Mr. Bauman discovered that a painting that had hung for years in the Illinois governor’s mansion, which was believed to be an original portrait of Mrs. Lincoln painted by Francis Carpenter, was actually a forgery perpetuated during the 1920s by a swindler named Lew Bloom.

President Hoover deeply admired Abraham Lincoln. He looked to Lincoln as a model for his Presidency and often referred to him in his speeches, and as a result received large volumes of mail concerning anything Lincoln-related. This included offers from individuals or businesses who hoped that President Hoover – either personally or on behalf of the United States – would be interested in purchasing Lincoln artifacts or memorabilia.

Cabinet card image of American vaudeville actor and art forger Lew Bloom (born Ludwig Pflum, 1859-1929). TCS 1.2687, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

Cabinet card image of American vaudeville actor and art forger Lew Bloom (born Ludwig Pflum, 1859-1929). TCS 1.2687, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

In May, 1929, just weeks after Lew Bloom had revealed the “rediscovered” portrait of Mary Lincoln, President Hoover received a letter from Walter Ehrich of the respected Ehrich Galleries in New York. Mr. Ehrich offered to sell Mr. Hoover another painting from Bloom’s collection, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln also supposedly painted by Francis Carpenter. Ehrich included a copy of Bloom’s affidavit concerning the Abraham Lincoln portrait, which was virtually identical to the statements he had made concerning the Mary Lincoln portrait.

The asking price of the painting – $35,000. Far more than the estimated $2,000 to $3,000 that Bloom had gotten for the Mary Lincoln portrait. There is no record that Mr. Hoover responded to the offer, undoubtedly because he was unwilling to pay that much out of his own pocket, or to ask Congress for an appropriation. Was the Abraham Lincoln portrait a forgery? In light of the information discovered by Bauman and his colleagues, any painting sold by Bloom was most likely fraudulent. But its subsequent fate and present whereabouts are unknown.

 

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