NOLA gallery acquires Lincoln opera glasses
NEW ORLEANS — It’s not the gilt-detailed craftsmanship or the age of the small, brass, black-enameled binoculars that might fetch a French Quarter antique gallery’s asking price of $795,000. It’s their history: Abraham Lincoln is believed to have used them to get a better view of the stage at Ford’s Theatre on the night he was assassinated.
M.S. Rau Antiques recently acquired the binoculars, known as opera glasses, from a seller who has remained anonymous. Previous owners have included the Forbes family of publishing fame — the magazine reportedly paid $24,000 for them in 1979. Others include generations of descendants of Capt. James McCamly, a military officer believed to have picked the opera glasses up from the street after they fell from Lincoln’s near-lifeless body (it’s unclear if they were in the president’s hands or entangled in his clothing) as he was carried out of the theater on the night of April 14, 1865.
“We deal in history and we deal in great pieces and this is one of the most exciting pieces we’ve ever owned,” Bill Rau, the third-generation owner of the century-old family business on Royal Street, said Thursday.
Rau said he had been contacted roughly two weeks earlier by the previous owner, who said he had paid $424,000 for the opera glasses at Christies’ auction house in 2002. He was interested in selling. “He’s now in his 80s and he’s suffered some health issues and that’s why he called us,” Rau said.
The story behind the artifact: After Lincoln was shot, McCamly was among those helping move the mortally wounded president from the theater to a building across the street. Something fell from Lincoln’s body and McCamly picked it up.
He found the binoculars in his pocket the next day. It’s unclear whether he tried to return them amid the turmoil following the president’s death. They were handed down within the family from generation to generation.
Documents attesting to their authenticity include a 1968 letter from a National Park Service chief curator to McCamly’s great-great-grandson, who was seeking to verify family lore. It said the opera glasses “precisely fit” a case picked up in Lincoln’s box the night he was shot.
There have been skeptics. Another park service curator told The Washington Post in 2011 that she doubted the opera glasses would still have been on Lincoln’s person as he was carried across the street and that the case in which they fit may have been Mary Todd Lincoln’s.
But past buyers have been convinced of the artifact’s authenticity, as is Rau, who pointed to a tiny dent in one eyepiece as evidence lending credibility to the McCamly family story. (The Christie’s website description of the glasses notes a small crack in one lens “as if dropped.”)
“Certainly, our belief, and the market’s belief, from what they’ve sold for in the past, is that they are the real thing,” Rau said.
Stored under a glass display dome, the binoculars are currently on the second floor of the Rau gallery near a Lincoln portrait. Rau says they will be sold to whoever comes up with the sale price, but he adds that his hope is that they go to a collector or museum who will put them on public view. “They are,” he says, “a pivotal piece of American history.”