Verner: Psst, want to buy a Bill of Rights

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 7, 2011

What price would you put on an original copy of the U.S. Constitution ó not in terms of what it represents but as a rare artifact, offered to the highest bidder?
That question comes to mind as members of Congress took their turn before the cameras to read a few sentences from our founding document. You might believe it has an obvious answer.
The Constitution, one of the sacred relics of the republic, is, of course, priceless. No one can assign a value to it, anymore than you can assign a value to the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights.
In reality, however, in the baroque world where hallowed history converges with crass commerce, people do put a dollar value on such things.
Think of it as Wayneís world ó as in Wayne Pratt, the high-profile Connecticutt antiques dealer (and ěAntiques Roadshowî celebrity) who was at the center of the story of North Carolinaís long-absent Bill of Rights.
One of 14 original copies distributed during the ratification process, the parchment disappeared from the statehouse in the chaotic days of Shermanís march on Raleigh in April 1865 and wasnít restored to the state until 2005, after an absence of 140 years.
An FBI sting plucked the document from the possession of Pratt, who had fantasies of a multimillion-dollar windfall. The antiques dealer had bought it for $200,000 from two aging sisters whose grandfather, Charles Shotwell, had given $5 for the document to an unidentified Union soldier who apparently pilfered it and it carried it home to Tippecanoe, Ohio, as a souvenir of war. For years, ensconced within a simple frame, it had hung in the office of Shotwell, a grain broker in Indianapolis.
The outline of the parchmentís rescue, as given in media accounts of the time, made for dramatic reading. But the back story makes it even better, as told by David Howard in his recently published book ěLost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic.î Howard, a magazine writer and editor, exhaustively researched the labyrinthine saga, which is both a detective story and fascinating look at the lives and lifestyles of those who buy and sell old things ó old furniture, old paintings, old books and documents. On the surface, the antiquarian trade appears as sturdy and upright as a Windsor chair. But Howard reveals another side. ěIndeed,î he writes, ěthe business of old and valuable objects is nowhere near as genteel and amiable as it looks on ëAntiques Roadshow.í î Like any business where thereís money to be made, it has its share of hucksters as well as heroes, and Pratt seems to fall somewhere between. A self-made entrepreneur, he created his own legend about a penurious childhood that spawned a precocious interest in all things antique. He was a natural salesman, Howard writes, with an ěepic congenialityî and a ěClintonian need to be around people, and to win them over.î
A lot could be at stake in Wayneís world. In 2000, TV producer Norman Lear and Internet entrepreneur David Hayden paid $7.4 million for the ěDunlap Declaration,î one of the first printings of the Declaration of Independence made in 1776 in the Philadelphia print shop of John Dunlap. (Hard as it may be to believe, that copy had turned up when a bargain hunter found it tucked behind a flea-market painting for which he had paid $4.) An 1864 anti-slavery letter written by Abraham Lincoln sold for $3.4 million in 2008. A year earlier, a copy of the Magna Carta, created in the year 1237, sold for $23.3 million.
While most rare documents offered at public auction have a clear provenance ó or unencumbered claim of ownership ó that wasnít the case with North Carolinaís Bill of Rights. Although Pratt maintained he was unaware of the documentís origins ó at the time, five of the 14 original copies were unaccounted for ó Howard makes a strong case that by the time Pratt and his associates tried to sell the document to the fledgling National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, they knew what they had. They also knew that North Carolina officials had never relinquished claim to the lost Bill of Rights and had vowed they would never never pay to get it back. In fact, the eventual outcome of the case, with Judge Terence Boyle ruling it belonged to North Carolina, helped reinforce the legal concept that public documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights belong to the people as a whole.
Thatís worth keeping in mind as a new Congress takes over and the political winds once again rise and whirl. Politicians are often inclined to read our founding documents as lending legitimacy to their own particular perspectives and agendas. They think they alone are in possession of bedrock truths. But the foundations of democracy arenít the property of any particular party, ideology, creed or religion. Never have been, never will be. They belong to all the citizens of this sprawling, cantankerous nation ó Republican and Democrat, white and black, gay and straight, believer and atheist. And as Wayne Pratt learned belatedly learned, you canít put a price on that.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.