March 12, 2010

Maine loses f ight for rare piece of history


— By

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence that once belonged to the town of Wiscasset is the property of a private collector, Virginia's highest court ruled Friday.

The Virginia Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the state of Maine and upheld a lower court's ruling that collector Richard L. Adams Jr. is the rightful owner of the 233-year-old document.

Adams bought the declaration at auction in 2002 for $475,000.

Friday's ruling effectively ends Maine's attempt to reclaim ownership of the document. The state spent $40,000 in legal costs to try to recover the declaration.

The state will not appeal the decision, said Thomas Knowlton, the assistant attorney general who represented Maine in the legal dispute.

''We are extremely disappointed in the decision, we strongly disagree with the court's interpretation of the law and its application of the law to these facts,'' Knowlton said. ''The result is that a public record that we believe rightfully belongs to the people of Maine is being held by a private collector in Virginia.''

The document is one of 250 copies of the declaration printed for each of the towns in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, to which Maine belonged until 1820. Only 11 of those documents can be accounted for, said Maine Archivist David Cheever.

One of the documents belongs to Hallowell. In 1999, the state sued for and won ownership of a copy of the declaration that now belongs to North Yarmouth. There are rumors of the existence of a third Maine-connected copy, said Cheever.

And then there's the copy that went to Pownalborough, which is what Wiscasset was called when the declaration was signed. The copies, known as broadsheets, were the hot news flash of the day. And the news they spread was the founding of our country, which is why this particular document is so important to the state, Cheever said.

''You're talking about the founding document that changes the government of an entire community, where you're told from this day forward it is not King George, it is your neighbor, it is the commonwealth, we are going to govern ourselves,'' Cheever said.

''This Declaration of Independence tells the people of then-Pownalborough that your lives have been inalterably changed. For those people, at that time, it was enormous.''

Wiscasset's copy of the declaration has been traced to Sol Holbrook, who served as town clerk from 1886 until 1929. State officials speculate Holbrook likely didn't even know he had the document. Town officials such as Holbrook, a jeweler, often kept town records at home because there was no town office.

When Holbrook died, some of the town records ended up in the attic of a duplex occupied by his daughters, Anna Plumstead and Mildred Holbrook, in Wiscasset.

After Plumstead's death in 1994, the declaration was found and sold at an estate auction.

According to Virginia court documents, Seth Kaller of Kaller Historical Documents Inc. in New Jersey purchased the print at auction for $77,000. In 2001, Kaller sold the print to Simon Finch, a rare book dealer in London, England, for $390,000. In 2002, Adams, a Virginia resident, purchased the print from Finch for $475,000.

State archivists tracked the document to Virginia, but didn't know the name of the owner. Under Maine law, all public documents are considered public property unless the state or local government relinquishes ownership.

Maine officials were determining a course of action against the then-unknown collector when Adams filed suit in Virginia to obtain clear title to the document. That's how they learned who Adams was, and state officials saw Adams' lawsuit as a way to gain ownership.

The state argued that the town, and Maine, never relinquished its claim to the document. But the Virginia high court agreed with a lower court that ruled Maine didn't prove that the copy had been kept as an official town document. The court also found that Maine's public records law does not apply to any documents created before it was passed in 1973.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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