Abraham Lincoln’s $100,000 Pocketknife

Abraham Lincoln’s $100,000 Pocketknife
The knife features a mother-of-pearl handle, polished steel scissors, nail file and various blades. Two of the blades are damascened—decorated with inlaid patterns of gold or silver—with foliated inscriptions. The presentation box is fitted oak lined with velvet and satin. The iron and wood in the box came from the “Old Liberty Bell.” Dated Oct. 17, 1864, the letter of thanks for the presentation of the knife was written by Abraham Lincoln. (Sotheby’s photo)

Editor’s note: A long-time vintage knife enthusiast originally from England, Jim Taylor wrote a number of stories on antique knives for BLADE®, including this one on a knife that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and fetched almost $100,000 at auction in 1989. Help us celebrate BLADE’s 45th anniversary with his story from the July/August 1989 issue.

by Jim Taylor

The hammer fell. The auctioneer at Sotheby’s January 1989 auction in New York couldn’t get another cent. The buyer, an anonymous American collector, had bought a 4.25-inch pearl-handled pocketknife.

The facts reported above are true. The sums of money mentioned are certifiable. Add the 10 percent buyer’s premium and the knife’s new owner got back $175 change out of 100 grand! Yep, the net price was $99,825.

The knife in question was not one you’re likely to find on a dealer’s table. This one was special!

An “Historic” Knife for President Lincoln

On June 16, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia. To mark the occasion, prominent Philadelphians presented him with what Sotheby’s catalog described as an “historic mother of pearl presentation ‘American Army’ multi-bladed pocketknife of slightly serpentine outline. Paneled with mother of pearl and inlaid with a gold plaque engraved ‘Abraham Lincoln,’ the pocketknife is fitted with polished steel scissors, nail file and five various blades, two of which are damascened (decorated with inlaid patterns of gold or silver) with foliated inscriptions.”

Accompanying the historic knife is the original presentation box, made of fitted oak and lined with velvet and satin. The inscription inside the lid states that the wood and iron used in the box’s construction came from the “Old Liberty Bell.” The lid is inlaid on the outside with a spread-winged eagle surrounded by 13 stars. The sale also included a handwritten letter of thanks from Lincoln. The letter, dated Oct. 17, 1864, states:

“I have received at the hands of the Hon. Wm. D. Kelley a very beautiful and ingeniously constructed pocketknife accompanied by your kind letter of presentation. The gift is gratefully accepted and will be highly valued, not only as an extremely creditable specimen of American workmanship, but as a manifestation of your regard and esteem which I most cordially appreciate.

Your ob’t serv,t
A. Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln auction knife
Abraham Lincoln lived at a time when knives were carried by most everyone on a daily basis—not only as a convenient tool but because, quite simply, knives were indispensable for a wide variety of tasks and personal needs. And, back then at least, Lincoln apparently was no different than anyone else.

The inscription on the clip blade reads, “LIBERTY, July 4th, 1776. Abraham Lincoln, Jan. 1st, 1863 EQUALITY.” The blades all carry the tang stamps “J. Ward & Co., Bronxville, New York.” It also is apparent from the photograph—kindly supplied by Sotheby’s—that various implements are fitted behind the pearl handle, such as a tweezers, pick and more.

Ward originally made the knife to the order of Albert B. Justice, a Philadelphia hardware merchant. Justice presented the knife to the fair’s board of directors, of which he was a member. He then solicited some 130 wealthy Philadelphians to endorse its subsequent presentation to the president. When presented, the knife was accompanied by a document containing the 130 Philadelphians’ signatures.

The document is currently in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Other items sold with the knife include a bronze medal commemorating the fair, as well as photographs of the presentation document, photocopies of a publication called Our Daily Fair that described the fair, and the text of Lincoln’s address.

The Bronxville factory in New York was originally a grist and saw mill prior to the Revolutionary War, and the four-story building housing the factory came into the hands of James Swain circa 1849. Swain utilized the building for the manufacture of axles, among other things.

In 1880, James Ward bought the property solely for the manufacture of cutlery.
Ward, like so many of his countrymen of the day, sought the aid of qualified and experienced Sheffield cutlers, and he even advertised for them. One tiny fragment of a prospectus survives. It reads:

“Dear Sir,

The undersigned, Manufacturers of PEN AND POCKET CUTLERY, are now prepared to sell to the trade, a first class article, manufactured on the English system…”

Knives made by Ward in Bronxville are certainly not plentiful, nor are the records clear about how long the company lasted. The factory later became the police headquarters for the Bronx River Parkway before its eventual demolition circa 1959.

Editor’s note: The current location of the Lincoln pocketknife was unknown at press time.

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