What follows is an account of how one intern solved the case of the missing auction catalogue…read on to discover how a little museum sleuthing resulted in some valuable information for the Lee-Fendall House.
As luck would have it: following John L. Lewis’ death in 1969, John L. Lewis Jr. decided to sell everything in the house. And I mean everything. Every piece of furniture, every letter, every photograph…everything. For some mysterious reason John L. Lewis Jr. decided to sell the items through an auction house based out of Milwaukee. Milwaukee might see like a pretty random place but, considering John L. Lewis Jr. lived in Chicago at the time, Milwaukee kind of makes sense. Or not.
Anyway, the auction gallery John L. Lewis Jr. chose had the totally original name of Milwaukee Auction Galleries (locally called MAG). MAG decided to combine the John L. Lewis auction with similar items to create one massive auction that took place in November and December of 1969. An auction catalogue was created to describe each item in the auction, including a few pretty glossy pictures.
In 1985 T. Michael Miller used a copy of this auction catalogue in the appendix of his book Visitors from the Past: a Bicentennial Reflection on Life at the Lee-Fendall House (1986). Sadly, Miller used an ancient technology called a “typewriter” and the copy of the auction catalogue is grainy and blurry. Miller also failed to tell anyone where he hid the copy of the auction catalogue when he was done with it…no one has seen it since 1985.
In 1994 MAG got into some rather sticky legal trouble and had to shut it doors. All of the remaining items and auction catalogues in the warehouse were scattered in the wind. I picked up the trail in Milwaukee thanks to my good friend Google. Apparently an associate of MAG split off and formed Schrager & Associates auction house. There are two different numbers and two different websites for Schrager & Associates that pop up on Google. Surprise, surprise: the numbers have been disconnected and both website domains have expired. So that was a dead end.
I decided to throw caution in the wind and call a random auction house in Milwaukee, thinking that maybe they would know what was going on. I called Betthausers Auction House. The lady who answered the phone refused to answer any of my questions regarding MAG. In fact when I asked her why they went out of business she responded: “I’d rather not say”. She then told me she had no idea what happened to MAG’s collection. Another dead end.
In desperation I called the Wisconsin Historical Society. I called the Archivist, who transferred me to the Librarian, who transferred me to the Curator. At first the Curator told me he could not help me. He did have a MAG auction catalogue but it dated to 1967, two years earlier than the John L. Lewis catalogue. The Curator referred me to the Milwaukee Historical society and wished me the best of luck. An hour later the Curator called me back and informed me that he had found the auction catalogue in the collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
Wait, what? How it ended up in the Library of Honest Abe is anyone’s guess, but it’s there and that’s all that matters! Elated, I called the library only to be informed that the auction catalogue was too long and there were simply not enough staff members to make a copy. She transferred me to another lady who was not at her desk, I left her a message and went home to take a long nap.
Such is the lot of the intern, destined always to be placed at the bottom of the totem pole. It seemed that she might never call back, but luckily, many many days later she called the Director of Lee-Fendall. Long story short…for a small fee they are going to digitize the auction catalogue and e-mail it to us! Victory for the little guys in the small historic house world!
And so closes the case of the missing auction catalogue. The Lincoln Library would have gotten away with hiding it forever if it hadn’t been for those nosy kids and their dog…get it? Scooby-doo? Anybody?
–Mary LeMaster, Graduate Intern