Court Rules Fairfax Man Owns Rare 1776 Copy of Declaration of Independence

Richard L. Adams Jr. of Oakton bought this 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence for $475,000 in 2002.
Richard L. Adams Jr. of Oakton bought this 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence for $475,000 in 2002. (Courtesy Of The State Of Maine Archives)
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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Fairfax County collector who paid nearly half a million dollars for a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence received a welcome declaration of ownership yesterday when Virginia's Supreme Court dismissed the State of Maine's claims to the antique document.

The court ruled in favor of Internet tycoon Richard L. Adams Jr. of Oakton, who had purchased the printed copy from a rare-book dealer in London for $475,000 in 2002. The document, known as a broadside, was one of many circulated in New England towns to alert colonists to the break with England in 1776.

Maine officials, who brought the claim on behalf of the Town of Wiscasset, claimed that the broadside was an official document that had been improperly removed from the town's possession and should be returned.

"There was no indication that the town ever knowingly, willingly or purposefully divested themselves of that document," said David Cheever, Maine's state archivist. But Cheever, who was disappointed by the ruling, said the state's attorney general saw no grounds to appeal further.

Adams's attorney, Robert K. Richardson, said: "We're very pleased with the ruling. It's what we hoped."

The case began in Maine in the 1990s and rummaged through early American history to reach its result.

After the Founding Fathers inked the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776, the Second Continental Congress directed congressional delegations to inform their fellow citizens back home. The Massachusetts Executive Council, which helped oversee the Massachusetts colony, including parts of what is now Maine, commissioned a private printer in Salem to produce between 200 and 300 of the broadsides. They were to be read aloud by ministers in the various towns and delivered to each town's clerk. The clerks were then to copy the broadside's text into their respective town record books "to remain as a perpetual Memorial thereof." But the council never explained what to do with the broadside after its text was copied.

The broadside in this case had been given to the Rev. Thomas Moore in the town of Pownalborough. Moore read the broadside aloud to his congregation and ultimately handed it over to Pownalborough's town clerk.

From there, the broadside's trail grows murky. Notations on the back of the document offer meager hints: "from 1776 to 1784 Warrants . . . ," "Town Warrants . . . ," "Loose Papers no Taxes."

As the document gathered dust, the town of Pownalborough changed its name to Wiscasset in 1802 and became part of Maine with statehood in 1820.

In 1995, the daughter of Solomon Holbrook, a watchmaker who had served as Wiscasset's clerk, hired an auctioneer to handle the family's estate. Tucked among receipts in the attic was the neatly folded broadside. After being auctioned for $77,000, it was passed between collectors until Adams bought it.

In 2005, Maine moved to get it back.

The Virginia Supreme Court held that the broadside could not be considered a public record under a 1973 Maine law on public records because the law was not retroactive. And it held that it also could not be considered a public record under common law. The court also rejected Maine's assertion that the broadside had been improperly sold by Holbrook's family, saying there was no evidence that it had been wrongly converted to private ownership.

"We were certainly surprised by the verdict," said Cheever, Maine's state archivist. He said the case only inflames a sense in Maine that too much of its history has been raided by out-of-state collectors.

"Here's somebody from 'away' who comes in and finds something of value," Cheever said.

"Because it's the Declaration of Independence, the hair on the back of the neck stands up. This shouldn't be leaving."

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