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Founding document, found again

The Supreme Court's $500,000 copy of the Declaration of Independence spent years behind a cabinet.

January 19, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to locate a rare, vintage copy of the nation's founding document, try looking behind the filing cabinet.

That was a lesson learned the hard way at the Supreme Court, where a 185-year-old facsimile of the Declaration of Independence gathered dust for seven years, tucked behind the office furniture, a court spokeswoman acknowledged this week.

Commissioned by John Quincy Adams when he was secretary of State, the 1823 engraving of the Declaration is now hanging in a court corridor with a notation describing its significance. Valued at perhaps $500,000, it is one of about 30 copies known to exist.

The disclosure about the so-called Stone facsimile, named after engraver William Stone, comes amid increasing concern over the nation's treatment of its historical artifacts. Last fall, auditors for the National Archives criticized several presidential libraries -- particularly the Reagan library near Simi Valley -- for lax control over their holdings.

At the Supreme Court, the snafu was blamed on the disorder that comes with an office face-lift.

The document had hung in the clerk's office of the Supreme Court building until 1996, when workers arrived to remodel the area, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said Friday. At that point, it was taken down and stuck out of harm's way behind an automated filing cabinet.

"When an office goes through renovation, things get moved around," Arberg said. "It was definitely safe where it was."

And there it stayed until 2003, when an official realized it was missing and, presumably, issued some declarations that had nothing to do with the pursuit of happiness. With the help of a longtime staffer in the clerk's office, the Declaration was quickly located. After conservation measures and reframing, it was placed on display in the court's Lower Great Hall in 2006.

The mix-up was first reported last month by the Legal Times, a Washington-based weekly newspaper.

On permanent display at the National Archives in Washington, the original Declaration was fraying and fading even a half-century after it announced the tumultuous birth of the United States. Over the years, craftsmen had produced some copies. But unlike the original, they were embellished with artistic touches and, in some cases, slightly different wording.

In 1820, Adams, who became president five years later, commissioned his engraver friend Stone to make 200 exact duplicates of the Declaration -- a painstaking three-year process. Scholars are divided on whether Stone damaged the original by using a "wet transfer" process that lifts ink off a document.

In any event, his reproductions on vellum -- animal skin treated with lime -- are "the closest thing you can have to the original document," said Elwin Fraley, a Minnesota-based collector and dealer. "These things are way, way undervalued in terms of their significance to America."

The copies were distributed to the Senate, the House of Representatives, various government agencies and surviving luminaries of the Revolution -- among them the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison.

Two copies went to the Supreme Court, though officials there said Friday that only one was sent from the Capitol to the court's new building in 1935.

In the 1840s, the copper plate used by Stone was employed to make an unknown number of additional copies of the Declaration on rice paper.

More common than the vellum copies, they are also less valuable.

The most recent public sale of a Stone facsimile with the same pedigree as the high court's was in March. The document, purchased for less than $3 at a Tennessee thrift store, was auctioned to a Utah investment firm for more than $477,000, said Seth Kaller, a New Jersey dealer in historic documents.

Frank C. Mevers, New Hampshire's archivist, has the state's Stone facsimile safely squirreled away in a climate-controlled storage area. He was dismayed but not shocked to learn about the Supreme Court's Declaration.

"We have the original parchment of New Hampshire's ratification of the U.S. Constitution -- a priceless document," he said.

"We didn't know where it was for years and it turned up safe and sound in the secretary of state's office. It can happen anywhere."


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