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

  • <center><b>Sotheby’s New York<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts Online<br>Ending December 17</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s Online, Now - Dec 17:</b> SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM. <i>Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies…</i> The Second Impression. 1632. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Sotheby’s Online, Now - Dec 17:</b> GEORGE CURZON, 1ST MARQUESS CURZON OF KEDLESTON. “Curzon Tiger Hunt.” [India: circa 1901]. 120 albumen photographs. $3,000 to $5,000
    <b>Sotheby’s Online, Now - Dec 17:</b> (CASSADY, NEAL). Kerouac, Jack. <i>On the Road.</i> New York: Viking Press, 1957. Inscribed. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Sotheby’s Online, Now - Dec 17:</b> VEGA, JOSEPH PENSO DE LA. <i>Confusion de Confusiones. Dialogos curiosos entre un Philosopho agudo, un Mercader discrete...</i> Amsterdam, 1688. $200,000 to $300,000
    <b>Sotheby’s Online, Now - Dec 17:</b> RACKHAM, ARTHUR — [WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE]. "The Moon Like to a Silver Bow New-Bent in Heaven," original illustration for <i>A Midsummer Night's Dream.</i> $12,000 to $18,000
  • <b>Bonhams New York: Fine Books and Manuscripts Including the World of Hilary Knight. December 5, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> KNIGHT, HILARY. The Original Portrait of Eloise that Hung at the Plaza Hotel. $100,000 to 150,000
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> WARHOL, ANDY. "Iced Lemon Delight," an Original Watercolor Presented to Hilary Knight's cat, Phoebe $8,000 to 12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> SENDAK, MAURICE. <i>Where the Wild Things Are.</i> PRESENTATION COPY, INSCRIBED with drawing to Hilary Knight in the month following publication. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams New York: Fine Books and Manuscripts Including the World of Hilary Knight. December 5, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> NOLAND, KENNETH. Original circle painting, untitled, acrylic and ink on cloth, for cover of monograph $8,000 to 12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> TOULOUSE-LAUTREC. <i>Histoires Naturelles,</i> 1899. With 22 original lithographs. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM. <i>A Collection of Poems,</i> [1711]. The first authoritative and complete collected Sonnets.$15,000 to 20,000
    <b>Bonhams New York: Fine Books and Manuscripts Including the World of Hilary Knight. December 5, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> LONDON, JACK. <i>The Call of the Wild.</i> 1903. First edition, first state jacket. $2,000 to 3,000
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> FROST, ROBERT. Autograph Manuscript of "Build Soil," 12 pp, 1932-1936. $15,000 to 20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> GOULD, GLENN. Glenn Gould's extensively annotated copy of Bach's Goldberg Variations $100,000 to 150,000
    <b>Bonhams New York: Fine Books and Manuscripts Including the World of Hilary Knight. December 5, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> PLATH, SYLVIA. EARLY Autograph Letter Signed, about her beginnings as a writer, Northampton, MA, 1951. $7,000 to 10,000
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> HOUDINI, HARRY. A collection of 11 cast iron shackle and lock items from Houdini's personal collection. $20,000 to 30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Dec 5:</b> M4 ENGIMA MACHINE, with very rare RARE HYDRA KEY ENVELOPE. $400,000 to 600,000
  • <center><b>Doyle: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake” Johnson<br>Online Only Auction ending Dec. 18</b>
    <b>Doyle, Arnold “Jake” Johnson Online-Only Auction, ending Dec 18:</b> WETZEL, CHARLES M. American Fishing Books. $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, Arnold “Jake” Johnson Online-Only Auction, ending Dec 18:</b> BISSELL, ALFRED E., <i>In Pursuit of Salar.</i> $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, Arnold “Jake” Johnson Online-Only Auction, ending Dec 18:</b> <i>The Settler and Sportsman in Anticosti.</i> $400 to $600
    <center><b>Doyle: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake” Johnson<br>Online Only Auction ending Dec. 18</b>
    <b>Doyle, Arnold “Jake” Johnson Online-Only Auction, ending Dec 18:</b> CARLETON, HENRY GUY, <i>Advice to Young Anglers.</i> $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, Arnold “Jake” Johnson Online-Only Auction, ending Dec 18:</b> ROBINSON, ROLAND EVANS, <i>Forest and Stream Fables. By Awahsoose the Bear.</i> $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, Arnold “Jake” Johnson Online-Only Auction, ending Dec 18:</b> SAWADA, KEN, <i>The Art of the Classic Salmon Fly.</i> $300 to $500
    <center><b>Doyle: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake” Johnson<br>Online Only Auction ending Dec. 18</b>
    <b>Doyle, Arnold “Jake” Johnson Online-Only Auction, ending Dec 18:</b> SOUTHARD, CHARLES ZIBEON, <i>The Evolution of Trout and Trout Fishing in America.</i> $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, Arnold “Jake” Johnson Online-Only Auction, ending Dec 18:</b> SOUTHARD, CHARLES ZIBEON, <i>Trout Fly-Fishing in America.</i> $400 to $600
  • <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:</b> Jean de Mandeville, <i>Reysen und Wanderschafften durch das Gelobte Land,</i> Strassburg, 1488. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> José González Cabrera Bueno, <i>Navegación Especulativa, y Práctica,</i> Manila, 1734. Sold for $55,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. Sold for $65,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Louise Bourgeois, <i>He Disappeared Into Complete Silence,</i> portfolio with complete text & 9 engravings, 1947. Sold for $413,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Erich Maria Remarque, <i>All Quiet on the Western Front,</i> first American edition, Boston, 1929. Sold for $9,375.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Sir William Russell Flint, gouache & watercolor illustration for Homer's <i>Odyssey,</i> 1924. Sold for $22,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Kurt Vonnegut, archive of 12 letters, signed to his family, 6 illustrated, 1930s-40s. Sold for $12,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Oscar Wilde, <i>Lady Windermere's Fan,</i> first edition, presentation copy, signed & inscribed, London, 1893. Sold for $27,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Emil Cardinaux, <i>St. Moritz,</i> 1918. Sold for $17,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> R.J. Waters, 3 panoramas of the San Francisco earthquake & fire, 1906. Sold for $21,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Album with 200 cartes-de-visite, including images by Felice Beato, John Thompson & F.W. Sutton, Japan & China, 1863-69. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. Sold for $40,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions