On the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Donald Dow saw him outside the Hotel Texas just before he left for Dallas.
“My dad, he wasn’t the last person, but he was one of the very last people to shake President Kennedy’s hand,” said Dow’s son, Greg. “The Secret Service was tugging on President Kennedy’s coattails and going, ‘Come on, Mr. President. We have to go.’”
Over the years, Donald Dow, a Fort Worth gallery owner, became fascinated with presidential assassinations and collected memorabilia related to the deaths of Kennedy, James Garfield and William McKinley.
Marguerite Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, had even been an occasional customer at the family business, Dow Art Galleries in Fort Worth.
But his primary interest would focus on Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and the assassination by John Wilkes Booth.
“Dad said, ‘When the history bug bites, it’s all over with,’” Greg Dow said. “For about 46 to 47 years, it was all wheels, no brakes.”
Donald Dow died in 2009, and his son, with help from curator Scott Barker, went through his father’s former Westcliff home and documented all the Lincoln-related items.
The collection will be sold off in 302 lots starting at 10 a.m. Saturday at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. Greg Dow expects to make money on some parts of the collection and lose it on others. A public preview will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at Heritage Auctions.
‘This was pre-Internet’
There’s no stovepipe hat, but there’s still plenty of memorabilia to choose from.
Among the items is a fragment of a letter written by Lincoln in July 1862 to Baltimore attorney and politician Reverdy Johnson in which he said the Civil War wasn’t going well for the Union. Lincoln vowed to keep fighting, saying, “I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”
Bidding on some of the more significant items began at $10,000.
Greg Dow said the items were amassed in the era before online collecting, a time when it took a lot of persistence to track things down.
“This was pre-Internet,” Greg Dow said. “He would write letters to people. He would call them. Sometimes they would say, ‘I’ve got something coming up’ and he would say, ‘Call me first. I’m interested in purchasing that.’ It’s a totally different way to collect.”
Donald Dow was the second generation to operate Dow Art Galleries, which has been in business since January 1935 and bills itself as the oldest art gallery in Texas. It is now run by Greg Dow.
“We did framing for Amon Carter, Sid Richardson — all those guys back in the old days,” Greg Dow said. “That’s really how we got our start.”
The long hours of work at the gallery would sometimes be interrupted as Donald Dow searched for new items.
“When the catalogs came in, all work would stop,” Greg Dow said. “I had the history bug, too, and as I got older, I would offer moral support and say, ‘You should get this or get that.’”
‘Strictly a historian’
Though the collection is being put up for sale, Donald Dow never planned to make money off it. Its worth was unimportant to him.
“He was strictly a historian,” Greg Dow said. “He would say, ‘I’ll never know how much it was worth because I’ll die owning it.’”
What the collection will bring is uncertain.
Don Ackerman, consignment director and Lincoln expert at Heritage Auctions, said Lincoln items are still in strong demand and have increased in price while political memorabilia has tended to drop.
“What it really boils down to is, if you have two people and they really want something and they’ve got money, it’s going to go for a lot of money. It’s going to sell for a lot,” Ackerman said. “… You really need the two competitors that recognize its historical value.”
Five years after his father’s death, Greg Dow is ready to move on.
He has to run the gallery and keep track of his father’s other collections.
“It’s time to let somebody else have fun owning it,” Greg Dow said.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698
If you go
The auction begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at Heritage Auctions, 3500 Maple Ave., Dallas.
Among the items:
▪ Autographed John Wilkes Booth letter: Opening bid, $12,000
▪ Abraham Lincoln letter arranging prisoner-of-war exchange involving Robert E. Lee’s son: Opening bid, $11,000
▪ Abraham Lincoln letter fragment: Opening bid, $10,000
▪ Framed photos with autographs of Lincoln, Booth and the soldier who shot Booth: Opening bid, $10,000
▪ A lock of Lincoln’s hair: Opening bid, $10,000
▪ Signatures of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln: Opening bid, $5,000
▪ Diary about the pursuit of Booth: Opening bid, $5,000
▪ Eyewitness accounts of assassination: Opening bid, $4,000
▪ Booth military arrest warrant: Opening bid, $2,000
Source: Heritage Auctions