How Four Dollars Can Unlock American History
In 1989, a man whose name was never made public was at a flea market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia. According to the New York Times, he purchased a painting — “a dismal dark country scene with a signature he could not make out” — because he liked the gilded picture frame it came in. At the low price of $4, that seemed like a bargain. He took the painting out of the frame only to discover that the frame was shoddily made and not salvageable. It looked like the admittedly small investment would turn out to be a waste.
There was, however, a saving grace for our unnamed protagonist. Behind the dreary painting was an envelope which, for some reason, had what appeared to be a novelty copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Unlike the real Declaration, which was hand-written by Thomas Jefferson and famously features a large signature by Massachusetts delegate John Hancock, this one was typeset and easy to read. Why the previous owner of the picture decided to hide the gift shop special inside a cheap frame was anyone’s guess, but the anonymous man kept it anyway. When a friend would swing by, he’d often bring out the Declaration and share the funny story.
And it’s a good thing he did, because two years later, one such friend realized that the document wasn’t a mere trinket. It was history.
The man who bought the $4 picture for its frame had the Declaration appraised by Sotheby’s. They confirmed what his friend suspected — that he was in possession of one a rare piece of Americana. When the Founding Fathers first drafted the Declaration, distributing the treatise wasn’t as easy as emailing it to the colonies. To get the word out, a consortium of delegates hired a local printer named John Dunlap to create approximately 200 large print, easy-to-read copies of the text, to be posted in prominent areas throughout the fledgling nation. These documents, known as “Dunlap broadsides,” served a critical role in garnering support for the independence movement.
At the time, however, not everyone realized the historic or future monetary value of these posters. Two and a half centuries later, only about two dozen of the Dunlap broadsides still exist, and most of them are on display in various libraries. The rest, as far as we know, were lost or destroyed. Or in this case, inexplicably hidden behind a second-rate painting.
The man who accidentally purchased this piece of history for four bucks didn’t hold on to it much longer — he cashed out instead. In June of 1991, Sotheby’s auctioned off the document, fetching $2.4 million — at the time, a record for a piece of Americana.
Today, this once-lost copy of the Declaration is owned by Norman Lear, the famed television producer — he led a consortium which bought it for more than $8 million in 2000. Lear doesn’t keep it to himself, though; the Declaration is often on tour, as part of his Declaration of Independence Road Trip initiative. It is not displayed in a shoddily-made gilded picture frame.
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