Through The Eyes of Lincoln: A Very Special Pair of Opera Glasses

Located in the Land of Lincoln, The Conservation Center sees its fair share of memorabilia connected to the 16th President of the United States. Among various Lincoln memorabilia, in 2014 we had the honor of restoring the courting couch, the sofa on which a young Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd actually sat throughout their courtship in the home of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. So when a Lincoln relic causes our conservators to stop in awe, rest assured it is a truly special item.

Before treatment image of the opera glasses.

Before treatment image of the opera glasses.

The night of Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, the President was enjoying an evening of theater when he was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC. Now over 150 years later, Chicago area collector William Kaper Jr. reportedly owns the very opera glasses that President Lincoln was using in the theater that fateful night.  As Kaper told the Daily Herald back in 2008, he bought the glasses directly from the Malcolm Forbes collection and has the documentation and photos for authentication.  According to Sotheby’s, where the glasses have previously been up at auction, the story goes that “as Lincoln was being transported [after being shot], the opera glasses — perhaps still in Lincoln’s hands, perhaps tangled in his clothing — fell to the street.” The glasses were then reportedly found in the street by a veteran of the 70th New York Infantry Regiment, Capt. James M. McCamly, who was serving as a Washington city guard that night. Perhaps the most compelling detail is that these opera glasses fit perfectly into the case currently located at Ford’s Theater National Historic site.

A Conservator working carefully to clean the delicate opera glasses.

Senior Objects Conservator, Sian Pirnie, treating the opera glasses.

When conserving items of such important historical significance, treatments are focused on simple and minimal preservation efforts. Sian Pirnie, The Center’s Senior Objects Conservator, did just that when treating the opera glasses. The glasses were carefully cleaned of dust particles using dry cleaning methods, meaning no liquids were used during cleaning. The gilt brass and black enamel surfaces of the outer barrels were successfully cleaned of surface dirt.  Sian recommends that the opera glasses are handled as infrequently as possible, and always with gloves. “Over time, fingerprints can easily build up as an oily residue on surfaces. The oily residue in turn attracts dust and grime which clings to the surface making any object harder to clean.” 

The opera glasses showing the tilted eyepiece, leaving hints the unique history accompanying the binoculars.


Finished project and display of the glasses.

There was also one other notable condition issue of the glasses that Sian observed; the end of one of the eyepieces, known as the eyecup, can no longer be unscrewed as it has become stuck in the eyepiece at a slant. “This could have been caused by the binoculars being dropped at some point, but of course, that is just a theory.” Sian recommends that the glasses are housed in standard museum environmental guidelines: Relative Humidity of 45-55%, and a temperature of 59-77 degrees Fahrenheit.




“Abraham Lincoln’s Opera Glasses Up For Auction” The Huffington Post

“From Maxwell Street scavenger to millionaire” Daily Herald 

“Opera glasses believed to be Lincoln’s to be auctioned” The Washington Post