Hats off to collectors, large and small. Just as newspapers wrote the first draft of Civil War history, collectors rescued and preserved the first, irreplaceable trove of Civil War relics—without which our understanding of that era would be hopelessly sterile.
Which is not to say that sometimes the passion for collecting goes a bit too far. We were reminded of the dark side back in June, when The Washington Post reported that an auction company in Pennsylvania was preparing to sell the skull of a Civil War soldier discovered in 1949 some two miles from a onetime Confederate field hospital set up in a barn during the Battle of Gettysburg. The auction house proudly reported that it expected a high bid of $75,000. Such is the lure of the unobtainable, however grisly.
Not surprisingly, the announcement drew criticism from a number of historians. As I told the Post, I can’t think of anything more grotesque or disrespectful than auctioning off the remains of a soldier who may have been one of those, as Lincoln put it, who gave their lives that the nation might live. I have nothing against passionate collecting. But this was desecration.
Apparently—for once—the outrage had an impact. Just hours before the skull was scheduled to go on the auction block at a Maryland hotel, the Gettysburg Battlefield Foundation came to the rescue, and in a private, pre-sale transaction, acquired the skull and announced plans to inter it along with the honored dead who rest there. Brava, and who says these organizations cannot turn on a dime to meet emergencies?
As it happened, these events unfolded just a few days after another terrible event—one, sadly, that no earthly power could reverse. And this was one tragedy that immediately reminded me of the softer side of collecting. It’s an untold story, but one that may serve to inspire public-spirited collecting in the future. And it involves Philadelphia businessman Lewis Katz, who died in a plane crash outside Boston in late spring.
I met Lewis on April 3, 2008—most unexpectedly, and most unforgettably—at the New York auction house Sotheby’s. The firm was selling rare documents that day, and the History Channel was so intrigued by the prize lot in the sale it had asked me to sit in on the auction, offer running commentary on camera, and then comment further if the manuscript, as expected, drew a record price. The lot deserved all the attention it was attracting: a wonderful 1864 Lincoln letter to the antislavery educator Mrs. Horace Mann in response to a petition from 195 Massachusetts schoolchildren asking the president to “free all the little slave children in the country”—meaning those, in Union border states, where slavery remained untouched by the Emancipation Proclamation. “Please tell these little people,” replied Lincoln, “I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He will do it.”
Not long before the prize item came up, a thin, pleasant-looking man in a sweater strolled into the room and took the seat next to mine. “Hello,” he said, extending his hand, “I’m Lewis Katz.” I confess I didn’t recognize the name. “Are you a manuscript collector?” I asked. “No.” “A Lincoln enthusiast?” “No—are you?” “A little bit of both,” I admitted, proceeding to explain the TV assignment that had brought me here.
“So may I ask what brought you here?” I asked. “Well,” said Katz, “I was home near Philadelphia this morning, I had nothing in particular to do, so I got on the train and came to New York. On the way, I saw the press story about this sale and decided to see what it was all about. How much do you think the Lincoln letter will sell for?” I told him about the estimate: $3 million. “Maybe too high for my first auction,” he considered. “What else is worthwhile?” Well, I offered, thinking perhaps I was sitting beside an outright lunatic, there’s an amazing collection of autograph album pages, with 13 signatures of leaders who witnessed the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863—including Lincoln. According to the catalog estimate, the hitherto unknown souvenir would go for “only” $800,000. Calmly, Lewis Katz started bidding and bought it.
As auction house officials raced over to intercept him and find out who exactly he was—he had actually ambled into the gallery without registering—I congratulated my new friend, and went off to do my prearranged History Channel interview. As it turned out, producers left it on the cutting room floor, not a bad decision in retrospect. The real story was the mysterious Lewis Katz.
So who was he, anyway? I looked him up on the Internet and got my answer: owner of the Kinney parking empire, owner of the then-New Jersey Nets, part owner of the New York Yankees— later of the Philadelphia Inquirer— and now a Civil War collector, too.
The next and last time I saw Lewis was at a hotel following Doris Kearns Goodwin’s keynote speech at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. He told me he was still collecting, and had recently obtained a Lincoln letter affirming his determination to prop up a friendly newspaper with government advertising—“right in the middle of a war” he marveled. “Maybe it can be useful for your new book on Lincoln and the press.” Most important, he was generously making arrangements to donate his collecting gems—perhaps to Gettysburg, or to the National Constitution Center in his beloved Philadelphia.
So despite the horrific commercialism that nearly allowed human remains to be sold like bric-a-brac, and after a tragedy that robbed us of a wonderful character too soon, it turned out to be a good month for collecting after all—if done right, and in the public spirit.
Historian Harold Holzer’s upcoming book is Lincoln and the Power of the Press (Simon & Schuster, October 2014).
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.