Court Considers Case of State vs. Collector
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.