Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2008 Issue

The Government Faces Off Against a Collector for a Declaration of Independence

Wiscasset

Turn of the Century Wiscasset, from the period when the Declaration was in the home of Town Clerk Sol Holbrook.


By Michael Stillman

Another case involving "lost" public documents is playing out in a Virginia court, the type of case we both hate to see and expect to see more of in the days ahead. It pits a public authority against an innocent collector, the latter standing to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of a purchase made in good faith. There must be a better way.

The item is a copy of the Declaration of Independence, not the first printing, but a very early one, from 1776. It was printed in Salem, Massachusetts, and apparently went to the Town of Pownalborough in what was then northern Massachusetts. The town is today known as Wiscasset and what was then northern Massachusetts is now known as Maine. Somewhere along the way, as Massachusetts lost Pownalborough and Pownalborough lost its name, Wiscasset lost its copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Today it is in the possession of Richard L. Adams of Virginia. Obviously, he believes he is the owner. He would not have paid $475,000 to borrow it for a few months. Exactly what happened to it between 1776 and 2008 is not certain, but here is what appears to have occurred over the last hundred years or so. It apparently was held by Sol Holbrook, a watchmaker by trade who was Wiscasset's Town Clerk from 1886-1929. It may sound odd, even questionable, that a town clerk would have had important public papers in his home, but those of us who have lived in small town New England will not be surprised at all. These towns would have had few, if any, public facilities, and no place to store the reams of public papers that accumulated over a century and a half. The one person who would be most likely to ever need any of these records would be the Town Clerk, so it is quite natural that they would end up in his house. And, while there might be some call for town minutes or the like from the past decade or so, the need to access records from the distant past would be negligible if not totally nonexistent. Most likely, the records, which included this Declaration of Independence, made their way to Holbrook's attic quite early in his town clerking career, and never saw the light of day again.

After Holbrook died, no one came to reclaim the records for the town. It is likely after all of those years no one knew what he had, and no one cared. So the records ended up in the attic of Holbrook's daughter, Anna Plumstead. It's doubtful either she or her father ever had any idea there was something valuable in there. When she died in 1994, her belongings were put up for auction, and that was when it became clear there was something of value. At that 1995 estate auction, it sold for $77,000. Since then, it has gone through a couple of private sales, at one time being held by London bookseller Simon Finch, before making its way to Adams. Now, Adams wants to sell it, and the State of Maine, which somehow missed the auction in Maine in which it was sold, has hightailed it down to Virginia to seize the copy.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> <i>Westvaco–Inspirations for Printers,</i> 3 volumes, 1938-61. $200 to $300.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Proef van Letteren, <i>Welk gegooten worden in de Nieuwe Haerlemsche Lettergietery,</i> 1768. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Paul Klee, <i>Bauhaus Ausstellung Juli – Sept.,</i> Weimar, 1923. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Michel Seuphor & Jozef Peeters, <i>Het Overzicht Nos.</i> 22-23-24, Antwerp, 1922. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> Wolfrum & Co., <i>Modern Graphik, Serie I…,</i> complete portfolio, 1909. $1,200 to $1,800.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, May 12:</b> <i>Gravure et Fonderie deC. Derriey: Specimen-Album,</i> Paris, 1862. $5,000 to $7,500.
  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Science: Books and Manuscripts<br>15-25 May 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, 15-25 May:</b> Mary Anning. Autograph letter signed, to William Buckland, 24 November 1834. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 15-25 May:</b> Bolyai. <i>Scientiam spatii absolute veram exhibens,</i> Maros Vásárhelyi, 1832-1833, 2 volumes, half calf. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 15-25 May:</b> Vesalius.<br><i>De humani corporis fabrica,</i> Basel, 1555, modern crushed burgundy morocco. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Science: Books and Manuscripts<br>15-25 May 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, 15-25 May:</b> Copernicus.<br><i>De revolutionibus orbium coelestium,</i> Nuremberg, 1543, later boards, Rostock duplicate. £70,000 to £100,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 15-25 May:</b> Payan-Dumoulin. Profusely illustrated manuscript of fossils, France, c.1875-1979. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, 15-25 May:</b> Albert Einstein. Autograph letter signed, to his son Albert, 4 November [1915]. £10,000 to £15,000.
  • <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>Images of Angling:<br>The David Beazley Collection<br>of Angling Prints<br>Online Sale<br>20th May 2021</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Alken (Henry), after. Salmon Fishing; Fishing in a Punt; Pike Fishing, three works, 1820. £600 to £800.
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Early Images of Angling.- Hollar (Wenceslaus) Angling; River Fishing; and Salmon Fishing, after Francis Barlow, 3 engravings, [c. 1671]. £500 to £700.
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Rolfe (Henry Leonidas). <i>Studies of Fresh Water Fish,</i> 1851. £500 to £700.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>Images of Angling:<br>The David Beazley Collection<br>of Angling Prints<br>Online Sale<br>20th May 2021</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Morland (George), After. A Party Angling; The Anglers' Repast, a pair, mezzotints, 1789. £400 to £600.
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Pollard (James), After. Bottom Fishing; Anglers Packing Up, etchings with aquatint, 1831. £400 to £600.
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Angling's Age of Romance.- Sayer (Robert, publisher) & J. Bennett. The Angelic Angler, mezzotint, 1781; and another. £300 to £400.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>Images of Angling:<br>The David Beazley Collection<br>of Angling Prints<br>Online Sale<br>20th May 2021</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Fishing Satire.- London.- Roberts (Piercy). Patience at Paddington or angling in the Junction Canal, etching after Woodward, 1807; together with Woodward's 'Angling at Sadler's Wells', and another, 1794. £300 to £400.
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Fishing Satire - Cats Fishing.- Seymour (Robert). Waltonizing or - Green-land Fisherman, [c. 1830s]; together with 3 lithographs of cats fishing, [c. 1830s]. £300 to £400.
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Fishing Portraits.- Zoffany (Johan), After. Master James Sayer, at the age of 13, mezzotint by Richard Houston, 1772. £300 to £400.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>Images of Angling:<br>The David Beazley Collection<br>of Angling Prints<br>Online Sale<br>20th May 2021</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Wilkinson (Norman). Come to Britain for Fishing, lithographic poster, [c. 1947]. £300 to £400.
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Scottish Fishing.- Heath (William). Sporting in the Scottish Isles no. III. Salmon Fishing, 1835; and another. £150 to £200.
    <b>Forum Auctions, May 20:</b> Simpson (Joseph). The Border Angler, drypoint, [c. 1927]. £150 to £200.
  • <b><center>Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on May 31</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b> Aristoteles, <i>Logica vetus,</i> Manuscript, around 1250. Est: € 60,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b><br>L. Pacioli, <i>Divina proportione,</i> 1509<br>Est: € 80,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b> A. Jorn, Fin de Copenhague, 1957.<br>Est: € 10,000
    <b><center>Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on May 31</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b> Gospel of Mark, Manuscript, around 1180.<br>Est: € 30,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b><br>J. de Theramo, <i>Consolatio peccatorum,</i> 1481. Est: € 25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b><br>G. Braques in G. Apollinaire, <i>Si je mourais là-bas,</i> 1962. Est: € 6,000
    <b><center>Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on May 31</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b> Latin Choral manuscript, around 1500.<br>Est: € 25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b><br>P. J. Redouté, <i>Choix des plus belles fleurs,</i> 1827-33. Est: € 25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b><br>S. Delaunay, <i>27 tableaux vivants,</i> 1969. Est: € 3,000
    <b><center>Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on May 31</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b> Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1450-70. Est: € 30,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b><br>L. Moholy-Nagy, Bauhaus postcard, 1923. Est: € 5,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 31:</b><br>K. Price in Ch. Bukowski, <i>Heat wave,</i> 1995. Est: € 2,500.

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