Flea market fortune Hidden 1776 document may bring $1 million

April 03, 1991|By Newsday

A $4 FIND AT A FLEA MARKET yielded a surprise for a Philadelphia man and a coup for a New York auction house, a rare first printing of the Declaration of Independence valued at more than $1 million.

The document, printed July 4, 1776, and now one of 24 known to exist, was found tucked behind an otherwise unremarkable painting bought two years ago by a financial analyst.

On June 4, the typeset copy of the Declaration will go on sale at Sotheby's and could fetch up to $1.2 million.

"It's going to be a great inspiration for a lot of people to go to flea markets," said Selby Kiffer, vice president of books and manuscripts for the Manhattan auctioneers. "It does prove that significant discoveries are still being made."

Exactly how the 18th-century document wound up among the bric-a-brac at a flea market in Adamstown, Pa., is a mystery. The yellowing sheet paper had been folded several times and inserted between the canvas and wood backing of a painting of a country scene that was "in rather decrepit condition," Kiffer said.

The financial analyst, a weekend flea market buff and collector of antique stocks, bonds and other paper items, liked the wooden frame and bought the painting for $4, Kiffer said. Sotheby's would not identify the analyst. When he got it home, he removed the painting and discovered a piece of linen paper measuring 15 inches by 19 inches.

"It has to be characterized as a lucky find," Kiffer said.

The man discarded the worthless frame and painting but kept the document, which he recognized as a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Although the buyer "just didn't quite believe it could be what it was," he put the folded paper away for safekeeping, Kiffer said.

In the past, the man had found some items of interest, but nothing even approaching what he found at the flea market near Reading, Pa., in the summer of 1989, Kiffer said.

Several months later, at the urging of a friend who also is a collector, the man called Sotheby's for an appraisal.

When the phone call came, Kiffer and his boss, David Redden, were skeptical.

"We literally get two or three calls a week from people claiming to have a copy of the Declaration of Independence," Kiffer said. "What most people run into is a reproduction of the handwritten copy with 56 signatures that was produced several months later."

In addition to the paper and typography, both typical of the day, the authenticity was verified by a handwritten endorsement on the back that read: "Declaration of American Independence. July 4, 1776."

The document was not subjected to any scientific tests, but, once it was taken to New York, several other experts were summoned to examine it and all agreed it was the real thing.

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