Former first lady's tiara sought for exhibit


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Museum curator Kim Kenney had been tipped off to watch an episode of "Pawn Stars" because a familiar piece of jewelry would be featured.

"I recognized it immediately," Ms. Kenney said of the diamond-decorated headpiece that had belonged to Ida Saxton McKinley, the wife of the nation's 25th president. "We have a picture of her wearing it."

Ms. Kenney, curator of the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio, quickly got approval from the board of the nonprofit institution to start fundraising to acquire the jewelry. The former owners had loaned the tiara to the museum for special exhibits on two occasions. Museum officials had not known it had been sold until they saw the television show.

"We couldn't let it go," Ms. Kenney said.

The tiara had been sold to the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas by a descendant of Ida McKinley's sister. Rick Harrison, a partner in the shop and one of the stars of The History Channel's "Pawn Stars," bought the family heirloom for $43,000. The jewelry has three parts: a metal band and two diamond-covered wings that can be removed and worn as a brooch.

"It's like the crown jewels of the United States," Mr. Harrison said of the piece in a TV episode that aired March 7. Before he bought the tiara, he sought the advice of Greg Kwiat, an expert on antique jewelry. Mr. Kwiat estimated the jewelry could retail for as much as $75,000. "How much value [the former first lady's ownership] adds is a little bit open to interpretation," he told Mr. Harrison.

After Ms. Kenney called the pawn shop and made her pitch for returning the tiara to Canton, Mr. Harrison agreed to sell it to the museum at the price he paid for it. But he gave the museum just three months to raise the money.

"We think the sense of urgency -- that short timeline -- will work in our favor," Ms. Kenney said. Unlike 13 other presidential libraries run by the National Archives and Records Administration, the McKinley Museum and Library operates as a nonprofit institution and does not have a budget for acquisitions.

If the fundraising effort is successful, the tiara will become the focus of an existing exhibit in the museum's McKinley Gallery devoted to the first lady. Items already on display include crocheted slippers Ida McKinley made, her shoes and several gifts she was given while in the White House.

"We knew that she loved jewelry, and she had lots of diamonds," Ms. Kenney said. "This is the only piece we know of from her diamond collection."

Plans call for displaying as many as 20 of her dresses. The century-old clothing items all are in need of conservation work to protect them from the effects of time.

Mr. Harrison said he felt a special connection to Ida McKinley. He and she both had felt the effects of epilepsy.

"I was really impressed, being the nerd that I am and having had epilepsy as a kid," he said in a statement. "I knew Ida had it, and that made [the tiara] more special to me."

The three-part piece of jewelry is on display at the Harrison family business, Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, in downtown Las Vegas.

Supporters thus far have given $9,700 toward the cost of acquiring the artifact.

"We've even gotten a donation from someone in Las Vegas," Ms. Kenney said.

Although William McKinley long has been overshadowed by his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, he was a very popular president. McKinley was just six months into his second term when he was fatally wounded by an assassin in Buffalo, N.Y., in September 1901.

Ida McKinley had known great sadness in the years before her husband became president. The couple lost their only children, two daughters, at young ages.

The McKinleys and their daughters are entombed in a mausoleum next to the library and museum.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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