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Inquirer Anniversary: A million-dollar flea market find

It is a collector's dream: A man goes to a Lancaster County antique market and buys a ragged old painting because he likes its wooden frame. Price, $4.

To mark the 180th anniversary of its founding, The Inquirer has reprinted an article from its archives every Monday for 18 weeks. Today's offering, the last in our series, was published April 3, 1991, and describes the discovery of one of the first printed copies of the Declaration of Independence.

It is a collector's dream:

A man goes to a Lancaster County antique market and buys a ragged old painting because he likes its wooden frame. Price, $4.

He goes home, removes the painting from the frame and, there, hidden between the painting and its wood backing, he finds a folded document.

The document, in almost pristine condition, turns out to be one of the first printed copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Value, about $1 million.

"Oh my God!" a local dealer in rare manuscripts said yesterday when told the tale.

But, according to Sotheby's auction house in New York City, the dream is true.

Sotheby's announced yesterday that the document - printed July 4, 1776, and one of just 24 known to exist - was discovered two summers ago by a Philadelphia financial analyst who was browsing at an antique market in Adamstown, south of Reading.

The analyst, a collector of old maps and stock certificates who was not identified, later found the document inside an old painting of a country scene, which he later discarded along with the frame.

He didn't realize its value until a friend who collects Civil War artifacts urged him to have it appraised.

"It took one second to know it was right," said David Redden, vice president of Sotheby's, who authenticated the document. "But what really astonished us was the condition - so fresh, so clean."

Sotheby's said it would sell the document for the owner on June 4. The copy is 151/2 inches by 193/4 inches, on slightly yellowed rag paper printed in black ink. The auction house estimated the copy's value at between $800,000 and $1.2 million.

"Amazing," Linda Stanley, vice president of the collections division at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, said last night.

"We get calls all the time from people who say, 'I've got this copy of the Declaration of Independence. It's been in my family for a hundred years.' And it turns out to be some crummy facsimile."

Redden called it "the most important single printed page in the world, in the most spectacularly beautiful condition."

Robert Batchelder, an Ambler-based dealer in rare manuscripts, called it "a first edition of the most important document in American history."

"Obviously you can't own the original," which is in government hands, he said. "This is the closest to the original that you can actually get."

And the way it was found "is indeed a wonderful story," Batchelder said.

The Declaration of Independence - the formal announcement to the world that the colonies were breaking away from Britain - was adopted by the Continental Congress in Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident," its famous second sentence begins, "that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. "

A Philadelphia printer, John Dunlap, ran off about 200 copies that night for distribution to the public, the army and the government, Redden said.

Batchelder said it was rare, but not unheard of, for such a copy to surface.

In January 1990, another copy of the Declaration was sold at Sotheby's for a record $1,595,000 to Chicago rare-books dealer Ralph Geoffrey Newman, who was bidding for an unidentified client.

That copy had been in the library of H. Bradley Martin, one of the great book collectors of the century, who died in 1988 at the age of 82.

Sotheby's had estimated that the Martin copy would bring $400,000 to $600,000. The bidding opened at $250,000, moved past $600,000, and then well beyond.

"I figured $1.5 million was enough," Tom Ligenfelter, a Doylestown autograph dealer who bid unsuccessfully, said in an interview last year. It was not.

Newman said of the Martin copy: "This is one of the finest copies in existence."

Batchelder said last night, "The trend in manuscript prices has been very consistently up. There's a fixed supply of these things and a constant increase in the number of people . . . collecting."

"It's basically an interest in American history, an interest in owning a piece of American history," he said.

The first copy of the Dunlap printing ever auctioned was one that was discovered on New Year's Eve 1968 when experts were cataloguing the contents of Philadelphia's venerable Leary's Book Store. Leary's had gone out of business the previous November.

That copy was expected to bring about $35,000. But it was sold May 7, 1969, during a three-minute auction at the Samuel T. Freeman auction house in Philadelphia - for $404,000. A Texas businessman, Ira G. Corn Jr., bought it and gave it to the city of Dallas.

In November, a group of Austrian cultural institutions paid $1.57 million for an original Mozart manuscript discovered last summer in a safe at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lower Merion.