The main investor in the Bunker Hill Housing Redevelopment (BHHR) project, David Rubenstein, returned three prized missing guest books during the Battle of Bunker Hill Exercises ceremony on June 17 – having a representative return the books in grand fashion on stage to Bunker Hill Monument Association (BHMA) President Arthur Hurley.
Seth Kaller, who deals in historic documents and collections and routinely represents Rubenstein, appeared as a special guest a Key Orator at the official exercises on June 17 at the foot of the Monument. With the three controversial missing (or some might say stolen) guest books in hand, he told the story of how Rubenstein routinely purchases items that come up at auction and likely should be in the hands of someone else. In this case, the BHMA has 61 guest books signed by visitors to the Monument in the 1800s. These three were missing for some time, and had been signed by many dignitaries, including Mary Todd Lincoln during the Civil War. They had been auctioned previously, but no one knew, and then they came up at auction earlier this spring, and the BHMA got wind of it and protested the matter. BHMA quickly tried to raise the funds to buy the books at auction, but couldn’t get the money in time. No one knows how they actually disappeared or when they disappeared, but they have been gone from the collection (which is kept in preservation by the National Park Service) for many years.
That’s where Rubenstein came into the picture.
“We are honored to present and share these book with the BHMA,” said Kaller, as he handed them over to Hurley.
“We are honored to have the books back where they belong,” said Hurley, hoisting one of the books up over his head in a total antiquity victory.
Kaller said he became aware of the controversy over the guest books as he represented Rubenstein in the purchase of some other old documents related to the Battle of Bunker Hill the day before the guest books were to be finalized. Several bids were already in on them, and the auction house briefed him on what was happening – especially the plight of the BHMA in trying to get back property it said rightly belonged to them. Kaller said Rubenstein has a long history of buying such articles and returning them to organizations that will display them to the public – including a copy of the Magna Carta he bought in 2007 and loaned to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Kaller said Rubenstein immediately said ‘yes’ to the matter, putting to rest the controversy and putting together a plan to return the books to BHMA.
“When we saw that and heard about it all, we said we need to get our hands on those guestbooks,” said Kaller. “The Monument was so important that people like presidents and secretaries would come and want to sign their name as part of history, and that’s a testament to the importance of this Monument…(David Rubenstein) bought and loaned them to the BHMA so we can display them and people can see these beautiful guest books. They will be a donation as soon as the agreement and some paperwork by the BHMA is completed.”
Kaller also said during the ceremony, in a short speech, that the Monument is a snapshot in time – a representation of what was – but that history has to change to be meaningful as new stories and new perspectives emerge. He said Rubenstein said ‘yes’ to such a request – as Kaller said he often does – in order to have them displayed and have the public come see this snapshot in time. In essence, he said, it is his sense of patriotism that drove the move.
The situation, however, got a little sticky in the fact that Rubenstein is the investor in a controversial mixed-income redevelopment of Charlestown’s massive public housing development – a project that was discussed for years and years and finally approved earlier this year.
Rubenstein made the purchase of the books through Kaller in early April, but wasn’t revealed publicly as the lead investor in BHHD until mid-May. Rubenstein’s investment is part of Declaration Partners, which is anchored by Rubenstein and his financier activities. While he is not the developer of the project and wasn’t involved in permitting or developing the project, he has a 10-plus year commitment to provide the capital needed for the $1.4 billion project.
For the BHMA and the Charlestown Historical Society – both of which were involved in brokering the deal to get the books back in April – Rubenstein’s involvement in the BHHD came as a surprise a month after the books were purchased and announced. It was hard for them to understand which came first – the chicken or the egg – on the matter.
That said, BHMA took the tack of accepting them as a gift no matter who the purchaser happened to be.
At their annual meeting on June 17 after the Exercises, BHMA hosted Kaller to give a presentation on the matter and to show the books to members – as well as to pledge to be a partner with BHMA for public shows of historic Bunker Hill-related documents.
There were three at the meeting that objected to the gift, including Diane Valle, Johanna Hynes and Don Haska. Valle and Hynes had been particularly critical and in opposition to the Bunker Hill redevelopment and felt the gift was inappropriate. Only Hoska was a member, though, and the protest was overruled and the BHMA membership agreed to gladly accept the donations as a kind gesture from Rubenstein.
Kaller said he couldn’t really comment on Rubenstein’s real estate business in Charlestown, but said the action is consistent with his role as a philanthropist that wants to see historic documents displayed to the public.
“We have been collecting important American documents, things like the copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Emancipation Proclamation and all these things David buys – he doesn’t take them to keep or as part of his business. They are all loaned to appropriate institutions or museums. The only reason this is a loan now is because there are things (the BHMA) needs to do. Once that is worked out, it is a donation.”
That interest in historic documents, Kaller said, did begin in 2007 with the Magna Carta – which he bought at auction and has put on permanent loan to the National Archives for public display.
“We hope to open up a relationship and we can lend things for display that haven’t been here before and are related to the battle,” said Kaller.
“For David, historically, you can count on him being a good ally,” he continued. “In terms of property, that’s a separate entity that I just don’t know about.”
Most of the BHMA membership at their meeting said it was important to focus on the positive, and that things that were stolen or missing – however that might have happened – are now back where they belong – also however that might have happened.
“There are stories that a board member died and things were in their attic, and grandchildren got these things and they were in their attic,” said Hurley. “We don’t know. I have my opinions and you have your opinions. We don’t know, but these two gentlemen are responsible for bringing these three books back to us.”
The BHMA membership then voted to make Rubenstein and Kaller Honorary Members of the Association.