The Government Faces Off Against a Collector for a Declaration of Independence
Maine apparently has tough laws when it comes to retaking public documents. The state has already regained one town's copy of the Declaration of Independence, though that one was still within the state's borders at the time. We would agree that there is some legitimacy to this claim. Though no one ever stole this Declaration of Independence, it is also very unlikely that the town ever officially "de-accessioned" its copy either. They did not sell, give or throw it away. It just sort of faded from their possession.
Now it's easy and logical to say this precious document, never given away by the town, still belongs to it. However, that leaves the vexing question: What of Mr. Adams? He did no wrong, had no reason to be suspicious, and has $475,000 tied up in the document. Is he simply out of luck? Should he be? And what of the thousands if not millions of other old government documents, long ago discarded under now unknown circumstances? Should collectors who paid good money in good faith for them be forced to turn them over free? Does the government get to undo decisions made a century ago to discard excess paperwork it no longer had room to store because today those papers are valuable?
The law may make this document public property. Still, I don't believe the story should end there. Wiscasset may not have given the document away, but their placing it in private hands, and then ignoring it for a century, not unexpectedly led to Mr. Adams making a large and good faith investment in it. Obviously, the town, through its officials, had no idea this was their property, but that is not Mr. Adams' fault. Their failure to display even the slightest attributes of ownership or concern for their old papers for so long encouraged Mr. Adams, and his predecessors, to make good faith purchases. Now, the state claims Mr. Adams should pay for their negligence in caring for their property. Wiscasset had a century to reclaim the document, right up to the auction in 1995, with no one being harmed. It did not. And now, when some innocent individual is about to be seriously hurt, Maine suddenly makes its righteous claim. My opinion is that if the state has a valid claim, their negligence has caused Mr. Adams serious harm, and they are obligated to repair those damages. In this case, that amount is $475,000. And if they don't want to pay him damages, they should pay him $475,000 for all those years of storage.