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Erudite specialist at Christie's oversees record auction of Lincoln manuscript
Story by Mara McGinnis, BA '97, Photo by Douglas Levere, BA '89
UB degree BA '73; Instrument played as a music major at UB the lute; Favorite spot in New York Brooklyn Botanic Garden; Home base Montclair, NJ; Most impressionable firsthand sighting of rare manuscript Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Hammer (now owned by Bill Gates)
Back in 1992, Chris Coover, senior vice president and specialist in manuscripts at Christie’s in New York City, was “poking around” in Volume 8 of Abraham Lincoln’s Collected Works when he stumbled on the text of a presidential speech he had never before seen. Titled “Response to a Serenade,” the speech was delivered by Lincoln on November 10, 1864, from the balcony of the White House only two days after his unexpected reelection as president.
“It was striking that this little-known speech had the same ring as the famous second inaugural,” says Coover. “They both contained a powerful and eloquent appeal for national reconciliation.”
A footnote indicated that the Southworth Library in upstate New York owned the original manuscript, so Coover wrote to the library and offered an appraisal. “Opening the folder that contained the speech was an intensely exhilarating moment,” he recalls, noting that it was written in Lincoln’s large, clear hand, and that the authenticity of the manuscript was immediately evident. “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you can tell in a glance,” Coover explains. But it took more than a decade of deliberations for the library to decide to put the Lincoln manuscript up for sale. Finally, on February 12, 2009—the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth—it sold at auction at Christie’s for $3.4 million, a world record for any American document.
Coincidentally, another UB alumnus, Michael Lane, BA ’72, is the secretary of the Southworth Library’s Board of Trustees and worked closely with Coover to negotiate the consignment to Christie’s. “When Chris first met the board, he put everyone at ease with his impressive knowledge of Lincoln and of the manuscript itself,” says Lane, who noted that it was with “very heavy hearts” that the board decided to sell it to finance a new addition to the library. “We put our total trust in Chris and Christie’s, and they delivered.”
While that sale was a high point of Coover’s career, he also helped bring to auction such high-profile items as Jack Kerouac’s original typescript scroll of “On the Road,” the manuscript of a Johann Sebastian Bach cantata, an early Albert Einstein scientific manuscript and many other treasures. While the documents he’s researched in nearly 30 years at the world-renowned auction house have collectively sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, he says it’s “the thrill of discovery” that he enjoys most, adding that he’s had “some incredible luck along the way.”
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