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A 19th-century flag disrupts leadership at an Illinois museum, prompts a state investigation

Published:Monday | May 27, 2024 | 12:06 AM
This image provided by Heritage Auctions shows a 21-star US flag.
This image provided by Heritage Auctions shows a 21-star US flag.

Springfield (AP):

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is once again under the spotlight after a manager failed to consult a collections committee before purchasing a 21-star flag, whose description as a rare banner marking Illinois’ 1818 admission to the Union is disputed.

The flag’s acquisition through an online auction for more than $15,000 precipitated an investigation by Illinois’ Office of the Executive Inspector General about money used for the purchase. The purchase also led to division in the Springfield museum’s leadership and may have prompted the firing of an employee, who said the acquisition skirted procedures.

The flag is known as a ‘Grand Luminary’ because its 21 stars are arranged in the shape of a star. The museum is confident it represents Illinois’ admission as the 21st state, spokesperson Christopher Wills said.

Such flags are rare because the design was changed a year later when Alabama and Maine joined the Union.

But Jeff Bridgman, a respected vexillologist, or flag expert, told The Associated Press (AP) its construction and materials indicate the flag was produced decades later, during the Civil War, and is perhaps a Southern exclusionary flag, whose stars represent states that remained loyal to the Union.

Bridgman, who stocks roughly 3,000 mostly 19th-century flags, says it is not from 1818.

“If it was,” he said, “I would have been after it at the auction.”

This is not the first possible blow to the museum’s credibility.

Its prized purchase of a purported Lincoln stovepipe hat, appraised at $6.5 million, went sour when evidence linking it to the 16th president was questioned. A director was fired in 2019 for sending, without approval, a copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in Lincoln’s hand, to a Texas exhibit operated by conservative political commentator Glenn Beck.

The museum’s acquisitions chief, Ian Hunt, submitted a request to the executive director to pursue the 21-star flag on November 6, according to documents provided to the AP under an open-records request.

The flag had been part of the prestigious Zaricor Flag Collection. Hunt won the auction on November 13 and the museum paid $15,625 for the flag using the King Hostick trust fund, an endowment to finance state historic research and artefact acquisition.

Museum policy dictates that purchases exceeding $2,000 be proposed for advance consideration by a collections committee composed of department heads. The panel hadn’t met regularly because of a staff vacancy, but it convened to consider the flag on December 7, three weeks after its purchase, and voted seven to two in favour.

Then registrar Eldon Yeakel and Research Director Brian Mitchell voted ‘no’. Mitchell declined to comment to the AP. Staff comments at the bottom of the document recording the vote include concerns about the flag’s authenticity and storage.

The committee vote would have been closer had the acquisition not been a done deal, Yeakel said. The museum fired Yeakel on May 6, citing his poor performance and rules violations, but he blamed his ‘no’ vote. Wills declined comment.

Yeakel said he told investigators with the executive inspector general that the flag purchase improperly sidestepped committee concurrence. They asked him if he knew of fraud or abuse in the transaction and whether King Hostick funds were tapped. He told them he didn’t know of any fraud or abuse, or the details concerning Hostick money or its intended use.

Two museum employees, one current and one former, told the AP that their complaints to the inspector prompted the investigation. They requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

Neil Olson, general counsel for the inspector general, declined comment on the probe. The office has not released any findings.

In cases of wrongdoing, the inspector general’s office can recommend corrective remedies, including discipline or dismissal. The inspector also may conduct a criminal investigation or refer a probe to the appropriate law-enforcement agency.

Wills said the museum has not been made aware of any complaints to the inspector general, but was “clearly allowed” to use Hostick money for the flag. He conceded a “misstep” by Hunt for proceeding without committee consideration, but noted museum policy only requires the committee’s “recommendation” on pricey purchases.

After the late Ben Zaricor purchased the flag in 1995, he had renowned vexillologist Howard Madaus examine it. Madaus determined the flag was made entirely of cotton in 1818-20.

Bridgman considered Madaus, who died in 2007, a respected colleague and friend, but he said Madaus got this one wrong.

While he hasn’t examined the flag personally, Bridgman said high-resolution images show the blue canton is wool or a wool blend, typical of Civil War-era flags. It is worn in long, narrow holes.