Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2009 Issue

Collector Bests State in Battle for $475,000 Document

Decofind

A similar old copy of the Declaration of Independence.


By Michael Stillman

In a major case pitting a collector against a state for ownership of old documents, victory has gone to the collector. Richard L. Adams of Virginia prevailed over the State of Maine in the Virginia Supreme Court for a copy of the Declaration of Independence he purchased for $475,000. It was certainly a major victory for Mr. Adams personally, but collectors owning potentially challengeable old government documents should not yet send out a collective sigh of relief. There could be less to this decision than meets the eye.

Here is a brief history of this long case, over 200 years in the making. In 1776, authorities in the State of Massachusetts authorized a private printer to print 250 copies of a radical document recently approved in Philadelphia - the Declaration of Independence. The order provided that these printings of the Declaration be read from the pulpits of local churches, and then handed over to the Town Clerk to transcribe into that town's official records. Nothing was said about what should happen to these printings after they were transcribed into the record.

The copy in question was read in the pulpits, and turned over to the Town Clerk of Pownalborough, Massachusetts (which is today the town of Wiscasset, Maine). On November 10, 1776, Town Clerk Edmund Bridge copied the Declaration on the town's records as required, and then did something with the original document. What he did with it is not certain. As the court noted, there is no definite sighting again for 219 years, when it was put up for auction in the sale of the estate of Anna Plumstead of Wiscasset. However, it is not all that hard to surmise what happened.

Some writing on the back of the document indicates it stayed with the town for at least a short while, and then the written evidence goes blank. However, Anna Plumstead was the daughter of Town Clerk Solomon Holbrook. Holbrook attained that position in the 1880s, and held it until he died in 1929. In this era, small New England towns did not have much in the way of government offices, so town clerks kept public documents at home. It would certainly be reasonable to believe that this item, and other old town documents found in Plumstead's house, arrived there via her father, either being transferred to her house for storage during Holbrook's life or after he died. Holbrook had at one time owned his daughter's house, though he never lived there.

In 1995, the Declaration was sold at a public auction of Plumstead's estate. It was purchased by Seth Kaller of Kaller Historical Documents for $77,000. In 2001, Kaller sold it to London bookseller Simon Finch for $390,000, who in turn sold it to Adams in 2002 for $475,000. Had the decision gone the other way, Adams could have been out as much as the full $475,000, depending on whether he could have collected any reimbursements from those who preceded him in the chain.

In reaching its decision, the Virginia Supreme Court noted first that possession presumes ownership. In other words, it is up to the party not possessing the item, in this case Maine, to show that it is the true owner, not the other way around. On the other hand, it also noted that public records belong to the government, a point favoring Maine. Then it proceeded to evaluate Maine's three arguments. The first two dealt with public records, and the third with simple conversion, or unlawful taking.

The first "public record" argument relied on the common law position that public records belong to the government. However, the standard common law definition describes a "public record" as one written by a public officer. This Declaration was not written by the Town Clerk, but printed by a private citizen. Therefore, the Court concluded, the only "public record" was the copying of this document by Town Clerk Bridge in the public register in 1776, not this printed original. Score one for collector Adams.

Next, the Court looked at the argument that this constitutes a "public record" under a statutory definition adopted by Maine in 1973. The lower court had ruled against Maine here on the grounds that the state had not produced evidence that this statute was intended to apply the definition retroactively to pre-1973 records. The Supreme Court then rejected Maine's appeal on this issue on a technicality, saying the state did not properly challenge this finding and so it would not reconsider the argument. Score two for Adams.

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:</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.
  • <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

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