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The AC Digs Into: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic

July 4, 2020

As the Confederacy crumbled in early 1865, the city of Raleigh was overcome by an atmosphere of upheaval. Amidst the chaos of the changing times, the secretary of state’s office in the North Carolina State House was essentially left unguarded—a fact not lost on some Union infantrymen, who saw this as an opportunity to rummage through the office files and collect some spoils of war. Among the “prizes” claimed by these soldiers? North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights—one of just 14 original copies prepared by the 1st United States Congress.

Thus began this document’s century-long odyssey, which was chronicled and published by David Howard in his book, “Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic.” Howard joined Antiquities Coalition Founder and Chairman Deborah Lehr in an online webinar on June 30 for an exclusive conversation about “Lost Rights,” described by Dallas Morning News as a “down-and-dirty tour of the murky, sometimes ethically ambivalent universe of the high-dollar historic document trade.”

Key takeaways included:

  • Certain Historical Documents Should Be Respected as Priceless:  While Howard noted that experts had described North Carolina’s original Bill of Rights as possibly “being worth as much as 40 million dollars” due to its historical significance and value, he asserted that it is “actually priceless.” According to Howard, “It can’t legitimately be bought and sold. It’s clearly government property [and] has no place in the private marketplace.”
  • Historical Documents Have Not Always Received Adequate Care:  Of historical documents like North Carolina’s original Bill of Rights, Howard said, “It really took us awhile as a country to get our act together with keeping these things in good shape.” According to Howard, at the time that North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights was seized in 2003, the original copies of the Bill of Rights rightfully belonging to New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were all missing. Furthermore, other states had previously lost their original copies, only to have recovered them at a later date. New Jersey, in particular, has lost its original copy multiple times.
  • “Lost” Historical Documents Can Emerge After Remarkable Journeys:  An unknown Union soldier took North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights back home with him to Ohio. Not long after, he sold it for $5 to Charles Shotwell, who kept it in his family for more than a century. When Antiques Roadshow appraiser Wayne Pratt purchased the document from Shotwell’s family in the late ‘90s, he falsified its provenance, claiming that it had been found in the frame of a painting in upstate New York. The document’s journey culminated in what the dust jacket of “Lost Rights” describes as “a dramatic FBI sting on the thirty-second floor of a Philadelphia office tower.”
  • It Is Not Always About the Money:  When asked whether people like Wayne Pratt deal in antiquities for the money or out of respect for history, Howard made it clear that the reality is not quite as black-and-white as one might expect. “I do actually think that Pratt … wasn’t just a mercenary in this,” Howard said. “I think history was actually important to him. I think he believed in the importance of this document, and I think I was the only one to point out, with regard to him, that as much as he created this fabricated story and tried to sell the document under very dubious circumstances, he also took immaculate care of the document.” In fact, Howard noted, Pratt deliberately chose not to scrape off the docketing that identified the document as the property of North Carolina.
  • Proving Provenance Is Key:  When asked by Lehr what advice he would give to dealers and collectors of historical documents, Howard clarified that the same advice would go to both: “Do your best possible effort to try to gather the full provenance—gather the full story of where it has come from—and if it is clear that these things belong to some public entity, I think they need to be returned.” While Howard acknowledged that there used to be a “Wild West atmosphere” of insufficient care and protection for historical documents, he also emphasized that there is no longer any excuse for those who neglect to investigate provenance prior to purchase.

To learn about other lost and rediscovered antiquities, view “The Long Journey Home: Story Maps of Cultural Racketeering” on The Antiquities Coalition’s website.

You can purchase “Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic” on Amazon!

Make sure you are shopping through AmazonSmile (and that you’ve selected The Antiquities Coalition as your charity of choice) so that a small portion of the proceeds go towards our fight to end cultural racketeering and protect the world’s cultural heritage.

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