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Norcross buys a Declaration of Independence in honor of an old family friend

A record $4 million paid for rare document that will be on view at first at Liberty Bell Center and Cooper Hospital.

Martin F. McKernan Jr., long-time Norcross family friend, looks at the rare copy of the Declaration of Independence purchased by the family in his honor.
Martin F. McKernan Jr., long-time Norcross family friend, looks at the rare copy of the Declaration of Independence purchased by the family in his honor.Read moreLexie Norcross

There was nothing quite like buying a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence for $4 million in George E. Norcross III’s experience.

Sure, he’s spent plenty of money on plenty of things, but a Declaration of Independence? That’s in a league of its own. And this one would be special in so many ways.

“I’ve acquired other one-of-a-kind documents and manuscripts, but nothing, nothing of this magnitude in American history; there’s not much you can acquire like this,” said Norcross, 65, in an interview. The South Jersey political power broker chairs the insurance firm Conner Strong & Buckelew and Cooper University Health Care and is a former Inquirer co-owner.

It was his daughter, Lexie Norcross, 33, founder and chairwoman of the website PhillyVoice and former head of The Inquirer’s website, who “brought it to my attention,” he said. She’d been thinking about her godfather and great family friend, the lawyer Martin F. McKernan Jr., seriously ill with cancer.

“I said, ‘So many people get things named after them, you know, once they pass away, like buildings,’” Lexie Norcross said. “‘What can we do for Marty so that he knows now? What is it that we could give him potentially or to show him something that will be in his honor, while he’s still alive?’” McKernan was a big history buff, she said.

A rare Declaration is not a building, for sure. “I was like this could be really cool.”

So it was that Camden County’s Norcross family came to bid by phone July 1 at a Freeman’s auction sale for an exceedingly rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, driving the sale price to a record level and acquiring the document in honor of Marty McKernan, who saw it just days before he died Aug. 3.

» READ MORE: Martin F. McKernan Jr., Camden lawyer and prolific public servant, dies at 75

Now that the Declaration will be placed on public view at Independence National Historical Park in a few weeks, the Norcrosses are acknowledging their involvement in what had been an anonymous purchase and announcing plans to ensure the document’s continued public availability.

Darren Winston, head of Freeman’s books and manuscripts department, said the Declaration that went to auction July 1 was a rare engraving on parchment ordered up by John Quincy Adams two centuries ago from printer William J. Stone. It had been found in the attic of an ancestral Scottish house where it had apparently been kept for nearly two centuries.

Stone labored for three years to create the copper plate for the engraving — eventually producing what is considered the most meticulous copy of the original document ever made. The 201 copies on parchment were distributed to the signers of the original Declaration, political leaders, and institutions. (Stone also kept one for himself.)

The copy sold by Freeman’s was one of 52 known survivors on parchment. It was one of two presented to signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Md., in 1824 (the other is in the collection of the Maryland Center for History and Culture), according to the auction house. It then passed to Carroll’s granddaughter and executor, Emily Caton, and her husband, John MacTavish, and subsequently descended in a Scottish family out of public view for 177 years.

Carroll was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration, which made this particular copy appealing to the Norcross family, they said, because McKernan was a devout Catholic.

Winston said that “bidding started, I think, at $450,000 and quickly worked its way up to a million, and I believe once we hit a million we lost one bidder, and the online bidders were all gone by then; I think they were hoping that maybe it would fly under the radar or something.”

That did not happen. And Norcross was still in the hunt.

Winston said another bidder dropped out at $2 million. At $3 million, there were four bidders.

“We lost the fourth bidder at $3 million and three bidders made it past $3 million, and at this point everyone, I think, was just high on what was going on,” said Winston. “If you had asked me before, I would have said, ‘I think it’s gonna do a million and a half, but, you know, if we’re lucky, it’s going to do $2 million.’ So already I’m way beyond where I thought we’d be and the bidding basically went back and forth between these three phone bidders.”

One of the three remaining bidders fell out at $3.5 million. Winston said one remaining bidder stood at $3.5 million. Another bidder upped it to $3.6 million.

“And then Mr. Norcross bid 3.7,” Winston recalled.

That was the winning bid. There was nothing from anyone else. The Declaration was Norcross’. (Final price, including the “buyer’s premium” fee — $4.4 million.)

“It was a very exciting time,” said Winston. “There was an eruption of applause in the room.”

Initially, the document is undergoing conservation treatment. George Norcross said it will be lent to Independence National Historical Park, where it will be displayed at Liberty Bell Center, and will make a foray this fall to Cooper University Health Care for exhibition in Camden before returning to the historical park.

“We have 9,000 Cooper employees, we have hundreds of thousands of current and former patients of the health-care system, and then you have the residents of the city of Camden, and Camden County, where we were born and raised, so it’s very important to us that the public be able to without any charge be able to come and see a founding document of America,” said George Norcross. “It’s an extraordinary, special, unique, rare document that we want people to have easy access to and have the ability to view. And we intend to see to it, certainly through my lifetime and my children’s, that that continues to be the case.”