Historical Society under fire for allowing Lincoln's watch to be recorded



Posted on February 26, 2013 at 7:26 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 26 at 7:26 PM

(WHAS11) -- An American treasure, Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch, is probably the most historically significant artifact entrusted to the care of the Kentucky Historical Society.
The watch has been getting a lot of attention lately, since its ticking sound was recorded for the Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln."
But some experts think that winding the watch risked damaging that priceless artifact forever, just for a bit part in a movie.
“This is a watch that Lincoln heard,” Kentucky Historical Society Curator Trevor Jones said, describing the audio recording of Lincoln’s watch now on display at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.
The sound came from Abraham Lincoln's actual pocket watch, a priceless treasure owned by Kentucky taxpayers, which until recently, sat silent for the past 150 years.
“We just turned it and it clicked like a charm,” Jones said.
Kentucky Historical Society staff members wound the watch so the ticking could be used in Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."
“Everything was in perfect working order. And so I called the film crew and said ‘yeah. You can send somebody out. We can do this for you,’" Jones said.
The sound was recorded at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort,  then it was used in the movie.
“We've got loads of good publicity for the historical society,” Jones said.
 “When we hear the ticking, that's the same ticking Lincoln heard 150 years ago,” Spielberg said in an interview when the movie was released in November.
But not everybody thinks the watch's Hollywood moment was worth the risk.
“Publicity outweighed the safety, security, taking care of it properly,” former KHS employee Tom Stephens said.
“I helped facilitate the historical society getting the watch,” Stephens said.
Before KHS got the watch, it had been at historic Helm Place, Mary Todd Lincoln's grandparents' home, in Lexington.
The watch was passed from Lincoln's family to Joe and Genevieve Murphy, who donated the watch to KHS after their death a decade ago.
“I know that she would be horrified that it's being misused,” Stephens said.
E-mails we obtained from just days after the film crew contacted KHS, Trevor Jones indicated he was "thrilled" and he wrote "we're absolutely willing and able to courier the watch out to you.”
The price to the filmmakers was going to be two business class tickets so that Jones and Curator Bill Bright could transport the watch to Skywalker Ranch, Spielberg’s recording studio in California.
The crew balked at the $4,800 price tag for plane tickets and, instead, sent a sound engineer to record the watch in Kentucky.
Bright, who's described as the historical society's “watch expert," determined the watch could be safely wound after giving it a visual inspection, according to documents we received.
KHS officials say the Bright has no training as a watchmaker, yet he opened the case, poured oil into the gears and wound the watch.
“By just visually looking at it and saying it's safe to wind and start ticking is against all the rules and regulations of good watch making,” Isaac Gavi, a Louisville watchmaker with more than three decades of experience said.
Gavi trained in Switzerland for several years before becoming certified to work on mechanical watches.
“That watch ought to be restored and kept. You don't need to wind that watch,” Gavi said of the Lincoln watch. “It’s too valuable of a historical piece. What's more important, that the watch worked, or that the watch belonged to Abraham Lincoln?”
Watchmaker George Thomas worked on Lincoln's other known pocket watch for the Smithsonian Institution.
He said he “fell out of his chair” when he heard the Kentucky Historical Society allowed the Lincoln watch to be wound for the recording.
Spielberg also reportedly approached the Smithsonian about the project, but officials there refused to allow that watch to be wound.
George Thomas also restored George Washington's watch, the world's oldest watch and the world's smallest watch.
“It is unthinkable. It is truly unthinkable that these people would not call watchmakers. They know nothing about it. And they open the watch. They do things with it. It's a national treasure. How can it be done?” he said.
Thomas says that oil KHS officials poured into the watch could eventually cause the gears to gum up and will likely lead to corrosion and staining of the priceless artifact.
The handling of the pocket watch is not the only recent controversy at KHS.
The agency's director Kent Whitworth, who refused our request for an interview,  paid more than $19,000 in taxpayer money for a set of earrings on an online auction.
They were supposed to have belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln, but the only proof was a statement from an antique dealer saying "he knew they were Mrs. Lincoln's, but he couldn't remember why he knew."
As for recording Lincoln's watch, “Nobody would have known the difference,” Gavi said. “Not everything they're saying or doing is historically accurate.”
“I think it shows you Steven Spielberg's obsession with detail in this movie, that they wanted everything to be as authentic as possible, which, I think,  in some ways is crazy,” Jones said.
The watchmakers we talked to said that now that the watch has been opened, oiled and wound, it will need restoration.
Thomas, the international historic watch expert from Maryland even volunteered to do the work for free.
But the Kentucky Historical Society says there are no plans to restore the watch, since their “expert” says no damage was done.