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From Maxwell Street scavenger to millionaire
By Anna Marie Kukec | Daily Herald Staff

William Kaper Jr., 70, is a multimillionaire Barrington attorney who buys and sells extraordinary items, such as the opera glasses that Abraham Lincoln used the night of his assassination.


Kaper has the opera glasses that Abraham Lincoln used the night of his assassination for sale for $5 million.


A signed photo of the cast of "Casablanca" is part of Kaper's collection.


Kaper owns "Halloween," an original Norman Rockwell.


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Published: 3/29/2008 12:09 AM

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William Kaper Jr. was 10 years old when he scavenged at the city dump at 31st Street and Cicero Avenue on Chicago's South Side. He could find just about anything -- a bicycle, a lifejacket, a wagon -- and sell it on Maxwell Street with the other hagglers.

That's where he learned to negotiate. That's where he learned about his destiny.

Today, Kaper is 70 and says his personal wealth is in the nine-figure range, which includes a $30 million Barrington Hills home on 40 acres.

This fall, his name will be emblazoned on a newly constructed $60 million pavilion on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, along with a new course program on Entrepreneurial Leadership.

"He's a successful entrepreneur who wants to give something back," university President Joseph White said.

Kaper also is a licensed attorney. But he doesn't practice law at his Barrington office. Instead, he buys and sells real estate, oil paintings and even celebrity or historic items. His latest treasure is a pair of opera glasses worn by Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination. Price tag: $5 million.

"I just turned down an offer for more than $3 million," Kaper said.

Kaper looks around his office, a 115-year-old building he had remodeled into a white castle sans the moat. This is where he does battle: buying and selling at high stakes.

The walls inside are filled with paintings with 24-carat gold frames. They include Norman Rockwell's "Halloween" valued at $2 million and an autographed cast photo from the 1942 film "Casablanca," at $60,000.

Other treasures include original oil paintings by Gottfried Helnwein and Peter Van Schendel, acquired through winning bids at famous auction houses Christie's International and Sotheby's.

Although he thrives on haggling and doesn't see retirement as an option, Kaper longs for the old days.

"It's lonely now," he says.

He is divorced. His grown daughter is married and living with her family in Wisconsin. One adopted son is grown and living in Maine. Another adopted child is living in Colorado.

Learning to haggle

Kaper was born at St. Anthony Hospital on Chicago's South Side to William Kaper Sr., a machinist, and Helene O'Bradovic, a stay-at home mother. They also raised his sister, Donna, who is 10 years younger.

One day, their grandmother, Katrina, took young Kaper when she made her own funeral arrangements before she died of cancer at 83. That's when they paused on 26th Street as she pointed to an office window. It had gold leaf letters that spelled "Lawyer."

"That's what I want you to be," he recalled she said in her Czech accent. "You might make as much as $12,000 a year."

That stayed at the back of his mind. But in his heart, he was a haggler, a hustler. He'd rather make a buck on Maxwell Street.

When Kaper was 15, he recalled his father lying about his son's age, saying it was 17 so he could start working as a machinist at Weil Pump Co. in Chicago. Young Kaper saved enough to help his parents make a $500 down payment on a home in Elmwood Park.

He later graduated from Oak Park River Forest High School and the University of Illinois, the first in his family to go to college. He also earned enough to pursue his law degree at DePaul University and helped pay for his sister's education. But putting his law degree to work for him was a different matter. He was fired from his first three jobs as a lawyer.

"There were disagreements," Kaper says.

Then he got a client he helped to acquire real estate. He still loved the art of buying and selling.

By 1964, he married surgeon Mary Ann Rosanova, but it became a rocky marriage. A few years later, he went on a fishing trip to Minnesota to think about things. Instead of catching fish, he bought real estate.

Always ready

Kaper's plane was late that day in Duluth, and he recalls strolling into a local courthouse attracted by the familiar sounds of an auction.

"I heard bidding of $2 and $4 and just went in," says Kaper. "They were selling real estate and I ended up buying 20,000 acres that day. I spent $80,000 for it in St. Louis County. It was vacant land that was tax-forfeited."

He knew he could sell it and later parceled it off.

In the 1970s, he bought around 2,400 acres in McHenry County. He still owns about 1,000 acres and remains one of Cary's biggest landowners. But some of its developments have been a source of battles with Cary officials.

"Bill is a rare person. He's always keeping score," said Cary Mayor Steve Lamal. "It doesn't matter if it's $5 or $5 million or $500 million. What matters to him is the next score. That's just who he is."

Kaper has been involved in other controversies, including a public battle about two years ago with his ex-wife over a 5-carat diamond ring, then valued around $98,000.

They had divorced in 1986 but he offered her the ring later in an effort to get back together. When they didn't remarry, Kaper filed a lawsuit to get it back. She returned it.

"I then sold it at Sotheby's for $185,000," he says.

Different kind of oil

His first purchase of an oil painting came on March 1, 1976, when he was in Marshall Field's in downtown Chicago. It was the Madonna by Giovanni Battista Salvi il Sassaferrato.

He paid $519.75. He sold it two years ago for $240,000.

He has since hired a man who scours for deals worldwide on his behalf and keeps active accounts with Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses.

Now he is selling Abraham Lincoln's opera glasses, sealed in a custom-made glass case he had designed in New York. He says he bought the glasses directly from the Malcolm Forbes collection and has the documentation and photos for authentication.

Why sell the opera glasses now? "It's time," he says. He sees letters and artifacts from Lincoln and other presidents now are being auctioned for millions of dollars. This is just as valuable, he insists.

What if he doesn't get what he wants? "I just won't sell it," he said. "I'll wait."

After all, he has other treasures. Like John Wayne's eye patch from "True Grit" and the leather bomber jacket and watch worn by actor Clark Gable during his World War II service.

"The transaction is everything," Kaper says. "It's the negotiation. Selling it and doing it. I'm always looking for the next deal."