What value did a bidder find in the Ku Klux Klan robe that was purchased at an auction? Curiosity? History? Tucked between children's Victorian-era button-down shoes and a World War I collar bag, one item stood out on an auctioneer's website touting an end-of-the-year sale: a Ku Klux Klan robe dating to the 1920s.
The white robe, discovered in an attic by a New Hampshire woman in her 80s, bore the KKK's distinctive round, scarlet patch with a white cross. For years, it sat in a bag, assumed by family members to be an innocuous garment and not a feared symbol of the white supremacist group.
The robe sold for $375 Tuesday night after four people bid on it.
Auctioneer Scott Morrill said when the woman considered selling the robe she went to wash it and removed the patch. On the back of the patch was her father's name. Nobody in the family knew he was affiliated with the Klan.
The woman, from Rochester, asked Morrill not to reveal her name.
Morrill, who has been in the auction business for 26 years, said he had never seen a KKK robe sold at auction and didn't know what to ask for it. He said he received some bids by phone before the auction.
"It's not the sort of thing people would readily buy in front of their neighbors," said Morrill, who wouldn't disclose the buyer's identity.
The KKK, a secretive society formed in the post-Civil War South, emerged briefly in Rochester from about 1923 to 1925, according to Martha Fowler, president of the Rochester Historical Society. Fowler told Foster's Daily Democrat the Klan held a meeting there in June 1924, when about 10,000 members from New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts gathered.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the Klan has shrunk nationally from about 4 million members at the time of that Rochester meeting to about 4,000 now. There are single chapters in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts.
Potok said finding a KKK robe at an auction is fairly rare: He estimates it's happened half a dozen times in the past 10 years or so. The SPLC, a civil rights advocacy group that tracks hate groups, believes museums are better destinations for Klan artifacts.
"I think it is true that we can't ignore or suppress our history," Potok said. "We have a very racist past, and the Klan was a part of that."
Morrill said he wrestled with whether to sell an item that represents hate but, as he has done with Nazi paraphernalia, decided the historical significance of the robe outweighed other concerns.
"My first reaction was, 'I really don't want anything to do with it,'" Morrill said. "I find it offensive myself. But what we really do here is sell history. And the way you learn from mistakes you make is to not destroy it. After a little soul-searching, I decided it should be sold."
Besides calls from potential buyers, he got angry calls from people outraged that he would sell such an item. Reached Tuesday night, he said there were no problems.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.