AND the winner is...

May 28, 2024 by Barry Eisenberg

There it was, that stiff cardboard Priority Mail envelope. It was tucked on a high shelf under a stack of books that hadn’t been touched for about 10 years. We are in the final stages of packing in preparation for our move next month, and as I lifted those books to put them in a box I couldn’t help but smile when I saw that envelope.

I knew exactly what was inside. It was an impulse purchase I made many years ago, a tiny piece of paper about a half inch wide by a quarter inch high. Slightly thicker than ordinary copy paper, it had one hand-written word in black ink. The word was “and.” That was it, just the one word, written in script. I had paid $160 for it and had eagerly awaited its arrival.

For as long as I can remember, dating back to my early childhood, whenever I told anyone the date of my birthday, February 12, they would invariably say, “Oh, that’s also Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.” In those days, schools were closed on both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays. Coincidentally, my sister Roberta was born on February 22, George Washington’s birthday. Those birthday holidays have since coalesced into one day of observance called President’s Day. Nevertheless, my connection to Lincoln was established early on and it was that commonality that spurred my interest in him.

As a child, I read book after book about Honest Abe. Those books for kids mythologized the man, and I was enamored by his hard work and honesty, coming to regard him as a larger-than-life hero. I continue to be fascinated by this extraordinary person, my interest having never waned. Among my favorite books is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” a penetrating account of how Lincoln brought some of his political adversaries into his cabinet. My most recent read was Jon Meacham’s “And Then There Was Light,” chronicling how Lincoln presided in a highly polarized political culture, a story with valuable lessons for today.

So, about the word “and”—

About twelve years ago, I came across a website selling Lincoln memorabilia. I generally don’t indulge in collectibles, but the site was sponsoring an auction of one of Lincoln’s legal briefs from his time as a lawyer before he entered politics. I thought it would be so cool to have something that he actually wrote, to hold a piece of paper in my hand that he himself once held in his.

The bidding started at $1,000. Wow, way too reasonable for what it was, I thought. Could an actual sample of Abraham Lincoln’s writing really be affordable?  Excited, I entered my bid and hoped that this site would attract little traffic. Ah, such naivety! It sold three days later for $110,000. Out of my league.

Well, you know how these things go. I went from casually thinking it would be fun to have a selection of Lincoln’s writing to needing one.

I checked out eBay auctions only to discover that same discouraging pattern – the bidding starts in an inconceivably low range and over the course of a very few days skyrockets into the tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Sure, I would have liked to have a written artifact from who is arguably our greatest president, but I was not going to sell my house to acquire it.

A couple of years later, I stumbled upon a website that seemed to cater to people like me, those who wanted a sampling of Lincoln’s writing but didn’t have a spare million laying around. They took an original work of Lincoln’s – in this case, a sentence from a legal position from his years as a lawyer – and cut it up into its individual words, each of which was sold in a separate auction. By the time I came across the site, only one word from the sentence remained: and.

Now’s my chance, I figured. When I came across the site, they were in the second day of a three-day auction. The going price for the “and” was $100. And there were only a few bids. How weirdly low, I thought. Perhaps it was because this “and” was the least desirable of the 22 words in the sentence, the others of which had already been snatched up. It was the runt of the literary litter.

I resolved not to bid until the very end, surmising that my only chance was to avoid contributing to a last-second flurry that would launch the price into the stratosphere.

Only a couple of other bids were placed on the third day. The highest was $125. Next to it was the bidder’s initials, RM.

This couldn’t be true, I thought. Something crazy is going to happen. Some massive explosion of bids was surely in the cards, a last-minute frenzy that would propel the price into Hope Diamond territory.

It was down to seven seconds and no other bids had been made since RM’s $125. On this website, you enter your bid by clicking on a box with the next permissible amount, which in this case was $160, then click Submit to execute the bid. I clicked on the $160, then positioned the cursor over the Submit button.  

Five seconds, four, three. I clicked Submit. My entry appeared on the site instantaneously. Two seconds left.

I was praying RM was not hovering over his computer, his raised finger at the ready, or if he was, that he just succumbed to an urgent need for a bathroom break. Come on, RM, stay away, stay away.

Two, one. That was it. Over. The winner was posted with the winning bid. BE for $160. One hundred and sixty dollars for a piece of history. But, in the spirit of Lincoln’s honesty, I confess that the exhilaration was as much for the sport of it all as it was for the acquisition.

As thrilled as I was, my natural skepticism immediately kicked in. I was convinced that this was all a scam, that my “and” would be written with a sharpie and accompanied by a happy face allegedly inserted by Lincoln. Or that it would never actually arrive. Or that the Certificate of Authenticity would be from a company called Benny’s Auto Towing and Handwriting Verification Services.

Just a few days later, the envelope was in my mailbox! While in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but think that this was all a bit silly, I was still very excited. After, all, if it was legitimate, it would mean that Abraham Lincoln’s hand and mine touched the same piece of paper. Our birthdays would not be the only thing we shared.

I tore the perforated tab across the back of the envelope and turned it upside down. A small piece of folded cardboard, about three inches square, tumbled out. Inside was a tiny plastic bag containing the miniscule piece of paper. As bizarre as the whole thing was, there was something enthralling about it all. The same hand that signed the Emancipation Proclamation and wrote the Gettysburg Address also wrote this word “and” on this piece of paper.

Included in the envelope was a seemingly genuine Certificate of Authenticity and a photo of the full sentence from which my now coveted word was clipped. The skeptic in me always wonders about the credibility of these certificates of authenticity, but I really didn’t care in this case. I was eager to believe this was the real deal.  Nonetheless, I did check out the certifying agent and was relieved to learn that they had been around for decades and are highly reputable. Whew!

I had shelved the teensy clipping of my “and” as well as the Certificate of Authenticity in its original envelope under a stack of books to ensure it would not bend, thinking that I would frame it one day soon. Time simply got away from me. Now, upon rediscovering Lincoln’s and my “and,” I have resolved to give it its due and plan to display it in an appropriate spot in my office in our new home.

 With that commitment in mind, perhaps I’ll submit fully to an obsession to obtain writings from other great figures in history. Maybe I’ll find an affordable word or two from Madison’s draft of the Constitution if that ever goes on the auction market. And King John’s actual seal on the Magna Carta. A few passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls would pair well on my office wall in the new place.

But why stop there when I can aim for grander sights, a written piece by the loftiest author of all time, past, present, and future? I can see it now, there, proudly displayed above the mantel, my very own snippet from the original Ten Commandments, a “shalt” etched personally by the Almighty.  For an extra $9.99 I can probably get Benny to vouch for it.