It was like winning the lottery for the Pennsylvania man who owned the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed in Philadelphia during the night of July 4, 1776. It sold for $2.42 million at Sotheby's on June 13. There are only 24 copies known -- three in private hands, the rest in institutions.
The consignor told Sotheby's he had found it behind an old torn painting he bought for $4 at an Adamstown (Pa.) flea market two years ago because he thought he could salvage the frame. It's a great story that some people believe and others say can't be true.
No one in Adamstown admits to selling it. The locals say it was sold at Barr's Auction, not at one of the markets; but Colonel Barr, who runs the auction on the Reading Road, says it just isn't true. Who knows?
Sotheby's declares that the price sets the record for any printed historical Americana. "An Audubon elephant folio has brought more, but for a single printed sheet this is clearly a record," said David Redden, a senior vice president of Sotheby's, who heads its book department in New York. Mr. Redden wielded the gavel as the price toppled the previous high, $1.62 million paid for another copy 18 months ago. That one was from the library of the well-known collector H. Bradley Martin and came in a leather slip case.
The buyer in June came out of the blue. No one in the trade knew Donald J. Scheer of Atlanta, who was seated towards the back on the left side of the salesroom and without hesitation kept raising his green plastic paddle, No. 198. The underbidder, Kaller Associates of Asbury Park, N.J., had an elaborate bidding strategy. Everyone expected them to bid on this prize lot of Americana. Myron Kaller and his son Seth and daughter Robin let it be known that they thought a first printing of the Declaration would be the cornerstone of the collection of historical manuscripts they have been putting together for two wealthy collectors. For the past two years the Kallers have been good customers of the autograph trade and a strong presence in the salesroom when American books and manuscripts crossed the block. Robin Kaller did the bidding up to $1.4 million. Then her brother Seth took over, but he stopped at $2.1 million. "Changing bidders sometimes works -- it scares the competition," said Myron Kaller after the sale.
It didn't scare Donald J. Scheer. After the sale Mr. Scheer, pressed against a wall by 11 TV cameras and a dozen reporters, said he was prepared to go higher. Finally he moved on to the stage and stood next to the broadside displayed in a glass case behind the auctioneer's rostrum for a photo opportunity.
In response to questions, Mr. Scheer said he was president of Visual Equities Inc., an art investment firm. This was the first historical document the company had added to its art portfolio. He said the company's holdings numbered fewer than 100 items and included Japanese, primitive, European and American art. He noted that his company was publicly traded on NASDAQ. Its symbol is VZEQ.
Mr. Scheer said he had bought the Declaration for more than just investment. "It is a living document; the words are every bit as alive today as when Thomas Jefferson penned them in 1776," he said. "These are the words that knocked down the Berlin Wall, freed Poland, put Havel in office in Czechoslovakia and elected Boris Yeltsin yesterday in Russia," he went on.
Reached by phone a few days after the sale, Mr. Scheer said he might not have made the purchase had he not gone to Romania a little more than a year ago.
"Right after Ceausescu was swept from power I was invited to Romania on an art buying trip," he recounted. "I had an excellent contact with the government, which needed American dollars and wanted to sell art from Ceausescu's palace."
Mr. Scheer said what he was offered was "the biggest lot of junk -- pictures of the dictator and his wife, a hunting lodge filled with stuffed bears and expensive hand-carved furniture that was coarse and heavy."
Though he bought no art, as he walked around the cities and towns Mr. Scheer said he saw graffiti and placards on the walls that had quotations from the Declaration of Independence. "There in Romania were Thomas Jefferson's own words in English," he marveled. "I realized then, the Declaration is one hellava document."
In April when Mr. Scheer read a newspaper account of the fellow finding the copy in Adamstown and read that it might sell for more than $1 million at auction, he decided the Declaration should be added to Visual Equities' portfolio.
What does Visual Equities plan to do with the Declaration? "We expect to hold it until 1992 and sell it during the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Discovery of America," Mr. Scheer disclosed.
As for the fellow who found the broadside and struck it rich, he watched the sale from a glass-enclosed box overlooking the salesroom but he had no comment for the press. "He was mighty pleased but he wants his anonymity," said John Van Horn,
librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia, a research library where the broadside was first examined and declared authentic.