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Long-lost Lincoln letter back in federal hands

  • Story Highlights
  • Rare handwritten letter is from Lincoln to Treasury Secretary Chase
  • Letter is dated four days before Lincoln delivered Gettysburg Address
  • Larry Cutler says he had owned the document for several years
  • Cutler returned the letter to the National Archives on Thursday
From Paul Courson
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Few items are more highly prized among collectors of historical artifacts than a handwritten letter from President Lincoln.

Larry Cutler donated the "lost" letter from President Lincoln to the National Archives.

This letter from President Lincoln to Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase has been returned to the government.

Now, there's one fewer in circulation.

An Arizona collector handed over to the federal government Thursday a rare handwritten letter from Lincoln to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. The letter, dated four days before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863, had been missing for more than 60 years.

Federal officials, who have not ruled out its possible theft from a government collection, discovered it two years ago during routine monitoring of online auctions.

They have been negotiating for its return ever since.

In the short note, torn from the center of a bound volume, Lincoln tells Chase to do a small favor on behalf of someone recently fired from his job with the federal government.

"Mr. (Robert) Stevens, late Superintendent of the Mint at San Francisco, asks to have a copy, or be permitted to examine, and take extracts, of the evidence upon which he was removed," Lincoln writes.

"Please oblige him in one way or the other."

Larry Cutler, a former prosecutor who collects artifacts ranging from Greek antiquities to presidential documents, said he had owned the document for several years and considers it a "cornerstone" example of Lincoln's compassion.

Stevens, according to Cutler, was "a guy who was let go or lost his position or otherwise fired, and he wanted to look at his personnel file to find the reasons why he was let go."

But officials at the National Archives suggested that there was more involved than just Lincoln's well-known practice of personally responding to letters from constituents.

Jim Hastings, a senior official at the Archives, said Lincoln was taking care of some political business even as the Civil War raged.

Stevens was the brother-in-law of Sen. Edward Baker of Oregon, a close colleague of Lincoln's when the two practiced law in Illinois.

Baker, who was politically influential in the western United States, was killed in the Civil War two years before Lincoln requested the favor for Stevens.

Hastings said "this document shows his regard for the senator. It shows his interest, even in the midst of the Civil War, in political issues on the West Coast. ... It's quite important."

Cutler said his nature as a prosecutor made him question government officials when they first sought to retrieve the letter, which had been in private hands for decades.

Initially, according to Cutler, an investigator reached him on his cell phone and asked him to just send the document back by registered mail.

"I don't work like that," Cutler said.

He said, "it took them quite a while to prove to me it was once theirs."

Cutler asked them this month whether he "could see the volume that they claimed held the other half of the letter."

"They opened it up, and it didn't match," he said. "My half of the letter was not the same size of the half they have."

Cutler was later convinced, however, when investigators showed how an untrimmed edge matched the torn remains in the volume, along with other evidence they felt established the source of Cutler's document.

He declined to say how much he paid for the Lincoln letter at an auction in 2006 but said a similar document in the president's handwriting is currently for sale at an asking price of $78,000.

With television cameras, reporters and photographers capturing the moment, Cutler handed the formerly lost Lincoln letter to a National Archives official.

"Here it is," he said. "I appreciate the opportunity" to donate it during the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth.

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report

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