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Making an Honest Buck Off of Honest Abe


You can make a decent living depicting or writing about presidents in recent years. Abraham Lincoln is only one example.


This week Daniel Day-Lewis stood up to accept an Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, one of the most revered presidents in American history. It marked a revival of Lincoln references in pop culture, from high-grossing movies to books. Lincoln even beat out Jesus Christ for popularity in a 2011 Public Policy Polling poll, albeit narrowly.

In the past few years, Abraham Lincoln has had a lot of positive press. It didn't hurt that Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals became required reading for history buffs and political junkies alike, as well as a favorite of the then newly elected president, Barack Obama. More Lincoln books followed and eventually movies, from the oddly serious Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln.The Congressional Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, celebrating Lincoln's 200th birthday, also helped bring the president's legacy under examination.

And where there's a presidential legacy, there's business. Historical authors, film producers, and artists all make money off of the image of our presidents, living or dead. Though Lincoln has received the most attention in recent years, John F. Kennedy comes in a close second.

Harold Holzer, senior vice president of external affairs for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has written over 40 books connected to Abraham Lincoln from Lincoln on War to Lincoln As I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes & Revelations From His Best Friends & Worst Enemies. Holzer also has a calendar packed full of speaking events, all the way to November 2013, thanks in part to recent depictions of the president.

"We've been struggling to get an interest over the years and then all of a sudden there was this national interest in books and artwork and lectures," Holzer says. "It's a very powerful wave that will lift all boats."

Holzer tells Minyanville that although Barack Obama's interest in Lincoln was not unique as Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were great Lincoln admirers, the historical significance was greater.

"It was just so powerful when the first African American president lived out the dream Lincoln talked about. It was the perfect storm, with Obama loving the movie (Spielberg's Lincoln) and swearing in on Lincoln's bible," Holzer said.

Holzer says he noticed the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George McCullock, have received more attention lately. A few years ago the HBO show John Adams received critical acclaim, even though Adams was one of the less charismatic early American leaders.

If the number of visitors to national memorials is any indicator, however, interest in Lincoln is very high in comparison to other presidents. The Lincoln Memorial saw 5.9 million people last year, up nearly 700,000 from the historical average of visitors. The Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial and Mount Rushmore only saw 2 million visitors. Visitors to Franklin D. Roosevelt's home or Teddy Roosevelt's birthplace pale in comparison to the number of tourists traveling to Lincoln's boyhood home and later home in Illinois.

Here is a look at how Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, George Washington, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton stack up in terms of how much money their legacies yield to directors, authors, and artists:


Steven Spielberg's 2012 Lincoln

George Washington:

A movie about George Washington may be in the works. Rumors fly that Black Swan Director Darren Aronofsky is considering making a movie called The General about America's first president.

Abraham Lincoln:

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2008), produced by DreamWorks Animation Skg Inc. (NASDAQ:DWA), earned $37,516,013 at the box office.

Lincoln (2012), distributed by Twentieth Century Fox (NASDAQ:NWS), grossed $162 million at the box office.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) recorded a loss of $740,000, one of RKO's biggest financial disasters ever.

John F. Kennedy:

Timur Bekmambetov's 2008 Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter
JFK (1991), produced by Warner Bros. (NYSE:TWX), grossed $205,405,498 at the box office.

Thirteen Days (1999), produced by New Line Cinema, grossed $34,592,089 at the box office.

Bill Clinton:

Primary Colors (1998), produced by NBC Universal (NYSE:GE), grossed $38,966,057 at the box office.

George W. Bush:

W (2008), produced by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. (NYSE:LGF), grossed $25,517,500 at the box office.

"Tricky Dick" Richard Nixon brought in a handsome profit as well for Frost/Nixon (2008) and Nixon (1995) at a box office gross of $18,593,156 and $13,560,960 respectively.

Number of Weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List

No. 5, Killing Kennedy by Bill O'Reilly, 20 weeks on hardcover non-fiction list.

No. 6, Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly, 73 weeks on hardcover non-fiction list.

No. 13, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, 14 weeks on hardcover non-fiction list.

No. 17, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 54 weeks on paperback non-fiction list.

In case you're curious, the No. 1 best-selling hardcover non-fiction was American Sniper by Chris Kyle about a Navy SEAL describing his personal life and battlefield experience. Kyle was shot to death this month in Fort Worth, Texas.


Abraham Lincoln:

The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation was sold for $27,000 in 1877. It would certainly be worth more now, according to Diane Skvarla, curator for the US Senate. She declined to give an exact estimate on its worth, however.

George Washington:

George Washington by Howard Finster, courtesy of Skot Foreman Fine Art.
George Washington by James Sharples. (1752-1811) William Vareika Fine Arts in Newport, Rhode Island. Bought at public auction for $141,000 in 2008.

George Washington by Howard Finster. (1992) Skot Foreman Fine Art want to change ain New York, New York. Price: $2,500. (Finster is well-known for his drawing for R.E.M.'s album The Reckoning.)

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Julian Schnabel. Sculpture. (1989) Galerie Andrea Caratsch in Zurich, Switzerland. Price: $280,000

John F. Kennedy:
John F. Kennedy by David LaChapelle

Photos of John F. Kennedy, printed during photographer Mark Shaw's lifetime, range between $4,000 and $8,000 at the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Contemporary prints made in limited editions by his estate are priced between $800 and $3,000.

Still Life: John F. Kennedy by David LaChapelle. (2009-2012) Chromogenic print. Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, New York. Price: $75,000.

Barack Obama:

Barack Obama by Robert Silvers. (2008) Photomosaic on plexiglass. Marauni & Noirhomme Gallery in Knokke, Belgium. Price: Typically sells for $10,000 and $20,000.
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