Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2009 Issue

Court Considers Case of State vs. Collector

Decofind

An early (but different) printing of the Declaration of Independence.


By Michael Stillman

The Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the State of Maine versus a private collector a few days back, with a decision expected in the coming weeks. What is at stake here is an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed in Salem, Massachusetts. The collector, Richard L. Adams, of Fairfax, Virginia, purchased it from a British bookseller for $475,000 in 2004. Maine claims the document belongs to the state, and Adams is legally obligated to return it. Adams, naturally, disagrees, and sued in 2004 in Virginia to establish his legal ownership of the document. While the lawsuit began in 2004, this case goes all the way back to the birth of the Republic in 1776.

In 1776, the state of Massachusetts ordered the printing of 250 copies of the Declaration of Independence, to be distributed to various parishes in the state to be read from the pulpits and town squares. Once this was done, they were to be turned over to the town clerks to be entered into each town's records. This copy was turned over to the Town of Pownalborough (now Wiscasset) in what was then Massachusetts but now is Maine. Town Clerk Edmond Bridge dutifully entered the words into the public record, and then the original document disappeared for a century and a half. However, we can guess what happened during that period.

In the 19th century, small New England towns rarely had much public space, so town clerks often kept public records in their homes. This is probably what happened to the document in the 1880s when Sol Holbrook became Town Clerk. It evidently went off to his attic and probably never saw the light of day. When Holbrook died in 1929, the records in his house, or at least those not being used by the town any longer, were transferred to his daughter's house. There they stayed for another 65 years until she died. Of course, they should have been passed on to the new town clerk, but no one knows now whether, in 1929, the Holbrook family agreed to continue safekeeping the records on behalf of the town, the town decided they no longer wanted them, or they just got passed along without anyone thinking too much about it.

In 1995, after Holbrook's daughter died, her estate was put up for sale. At that point, people realized she had a valuable document, but apparently neither the town nor state made any claims at the time. It was sold for $77,000, and after winding its way through a couple of booksellers, Adams purchased it in 2001 for $475,000.

So now begins the painful process of sorting out ownership. Does it belong to the town, for which there is no evidence that they ever formally deaccessioned the document? Or, does it belong to the good-faith possessor, who paid a lot of money, likely relying in part on the town's obvious lack of interest in it and failure to make any claim when it was sold literally from under their noses in 1995. Adams' investment certainly is in part due to this carelessness, or negligence on the part of the town and state. Is it fair that he should lose $475,000 for this while the town and state face no consequences other than receiving free professional storage of the Declaration for the past 15 years?

Maine has made the regular arguments in such cases, that under state law public documents are always public documents. They have also argued that the town never deaccessioned it anyway. Adams has argued that it is not a public document, as the original requirement was that the document be turned over to the town to be copied into the public records, not to become a public record itself. Therefore, it is only the Town Clerk's rewriting of the Declaration in the town's records that is a public document. The lower court ruled for Adams, saying the state had not met its burden of proof that Adams had converted it from its actual owner. Now the Virginia Supreme Court will have the final say, and historians and collectors everywhere will anxiously await their verdict.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500

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