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><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>October 20, 2022</b></center>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> JOYCE, James. <i>Ulysses.</i> London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1937. PRESENTATION COPY OF THE FIRST ENGLISH EDITION PRINTED IN ENGLAND. $50,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> [SHACKLETON, Ernest]. –– BROWNING, Robert. <i>Poetical Works of…</i> London: Smith and Elder, 1906. PRESENTED TO SHACKLETON AND THE OFFICERS OF THE NIMROD BY A MEMBER OF THE ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> AUDUBON, John James. <i>The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories.</i> New York: George R. Lockwood, [1870]. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>October 20, 2022</b></center>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> ARISTOTLE. Opera, in Greek, parts one and two only: Organon and Natural Philosophy I. Edited by Aldus and others. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1 November 1495–February 1498. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> COOK, James, Capt. [Collected Voyages]. First and Second Voyages: London: W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, 1773, 1777; Third Voyage: London: H. Hughes for G. Nicol and T. Cadell, 1785. $14,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> CLEMENS, Samuel Langhorne (“Mark Twain”). <i>The Writings of…</i> Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1899–1900. $12,000 to $16,000.
    <b><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>October 20, 2022</b></center>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> [KELMSCOTT PRESS]. SHAKESPEARE, William. <i>The Poems of…</i> Edited by Frederick S. Ellis. Hammersmith: William Morris for the Kelmscott Press, 1893. $12,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> LONDON, Jack. <i>The Call of the Wild.</i> New York: The Macmillan Company, 1905. PRESENTATION COPY INSCRIBED BY LONDON. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> CROWLEY, Aleister (1875–1947). <i>The Winged Beetle.</i> London: privately printed, 1910. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b><center>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts<br>October 20, 2022</b></center>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> WILDE, Oscar (“C.3.3.”). <i>The Ballad of Reading Gaol.</i> London: Leonard Smithers, January 1898. $6,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> DRYDEN, John. <i>Fables Ancient and Modern; translated into verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer: with original poems.</i> London: John Tonson, 1700. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 20:</b> [MAP]. LINSCHOTEN, Jan Huygen van. <i>Delineatio Orarum Maritimarum…</i> London: John Wolfe, 1598. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Antiquarian Books<br>Including a series of views of Milan<br>September 27 to October 4</b></center>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> Livius, Historia Romanae decades, Venice, Vindelinus de Spira, 1470, contemporary Morocco. €30,000 to €40,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> Blaeu, Nieuw Stedeboeck van Italien (Piemont), The Hague, 1724-1725, 8 volumes, marbled calf gilt. €70,000 to €90,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> Baysio, Rosarium decretorum, Venice, 1481, later vellum. €10,000 to €15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> [Niccolò da Poggibonsi], Viaggio da Venetia al santo Sepulchro, Venice, 1529, later half calf. €2,000 to €3,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Sep. 27 – Oct. 4:</b> Hieronymus, Epistole [Italian], Ferrara, 1497, blue crushed morocco with the Rocco di Torrepadula arms. €12,000 to €15,000.
  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Printed & Manuscript Americana<br>September 29, 2022</b>
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Extensive archive of papers of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> George Catlin, <i>North American Indian Portfolio,</i> 1844. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> The Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scriptures, Carefully Translated…after the Best Jewish Authorities, Philadelphia, 1853-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Printed & Manuscript Americana<br>September 29, 2022</b>
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Wedding book of Eleanor Roosevelt’s bodyguard, Earl Miller, signed by the Roosevelts, 1932. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Textile titled <i>The Resignation of Pres’t Washington,</i> Scotland, circa 1800. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Gideon Welles, Pass for President Lincoln’s White House funeral, 1865. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann September 29:</b> Confirmation of arms and nobility in favor of the Diez y Mora family, Madrid, 1710. $2,500 to $3,500.

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