Declaration of Independence exists in many rare forms

ANTIQUES

April 28, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Ever since the story broke about a collector finding a copy of the first printing of the Declaration of Independence worth $1 million tucked behind an old painting in a frame he bought at a flea market for $4, people have been ransacking their attics, basements, libraries and closets for another copy of what is considered the most important single printed sheet in the world.

What they have found for the most part are worthless souvenir copies on crinkly parchmentlike paper that have been sold for years at Independence Park or the National Archives. But one library in Maine found a broadside printed on July 18, 1776, by Ezekiel Russell in Salem, Mass., which might be worth as much as $60,000 to $80,000, according to Selby Kiffer at Sotheby's.

Similar copies have sold in the high five figures. One printed by John Gill in Boston on July 18 sold at Sotheby's in May of 1990 for $93,500. The following November another, by Solomon Southwick, printed in Newport, R.I., on July 13, fetched $88,000.

There are also large engraved copies of the Declaration from the first quarter of the 19th century that have sold for from a few thousand dollars to more than $60,000.

Thomas A. Lingenfelter, a Doylestown, Pa., dealer in autographs, said he's been offered so many copies of the Declaration since he was identified as the underbidder at Sotheby's in January 1990, when a copy of the first printing of the Declaration sold for $1,595,000, that he's decided to collect the 19th century engraved versions. The 18th century ones are out of reach.

The most valuable of all copies of the Declaration is the engrossed copy, the handwritten one signed by the 56 signers, now safely in the National Archives in Washington.

The first official printing designed for proclamation -- that is, public reading or public posting -- is the instrument by which the news of independence was disseminated See ANTIQUES, 7N, Col. 1ANTIQUES, from 1Nto the citizens. It was sent to assemblies, conventions and Committees of Safety in each of the States and to the commanding officers of the Continental troops. John Dunlap printed it on the evening of July 4 at his shop on High Street in Philadelphia. The exact number printed has not been determined; historians believe between 100 and 200 copies were delivered to Congress in two batches on the morning of July 5.

Only 24 are known to have survived. The one found in the picture frame is the 24th. The 23rd was discovered two years ago in the attic of a house owned by the New Hampshire Chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati. It was claimed by the State of New Hampshire on the grounds that the document had been sent to && the Treasurer of the State who had lived in the house and therefore it was state property, and could not be sold by the members of the society, made up of descendants of Revolutionary War officers. It is now on display at the Capitol in Concord.

The publication of the first large 19th century engraved copies was announced on July 6, 1816, by John Binns, Philadelphia publisher of a radical newspaper called the Democratic Press. He proposed printing a commemorative copy of the Declaration with portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock and seals of the 13 colonies and offering it for sale for $10. Before Binns could get his engraving on the market, several other engravers pirated his idea and undersold him, some charging only half as much.

A Philadelphia engraver, William Woodruff, apparently copied Binns' design. Mr. Lingenfelter has two versions signed by Woodruff, each dated 1818, measuring 26 by 18 inches. Binns' version is larger -- 36 by 26 inches. Binns' large copper plate, the largest copper plate ever made at that date, is at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Another version, also dated 1818 and signed by Benjamin Owen Tyler, a professor of penmanship, does not have a decorative border, and measures roughly 28 by 23 inches. A Tyler broadside cataloged as the first engraved copy of the Declaration (Dunlap's was typeset), sold at Sotheby's in October 1987 for $1,430. Another offered in October 1989 went for a record $6,050 -- considered an extremely high price.

Most of these large engravings are in poor condition. All are embellished versions of the engrossed copy in the National Archives and all have signatures of all the signers, which the Dunlap broadside lacks. Their value, depending on condition, ranges from a few hundred to few thousand dollars.

In 1820 John Quincy Adams commissioned William J. Stone, a Washington engraver, to make a facsimile of the engrossed copy of the Declaration in the National Archives, ordering 200 printed on vellum. It took Stone three years to finish it and reportedly he damaged the original by using a "wet sheet" process when transferring the image to a copper plate for engraving. The Stone engravings, the first actual facsimiles, were given to surviving signers or the families of deceased signers, former presidents, members of Congress and dignitaries.

One presented to the Marquis de Lafayette was sold at Christie's in 1985 for $45,200. Another that descended in the family of Roger Sherman, the signer from Connecticut, fetched $60,500 in 1989. The Stone facsimiles measure roughly 30 by 24 inches.

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