That Stiff, Yellowing Copy of the Declaration of Independence: Is it Real? Or Valuable?

This folded 1776 Dunlap copy of the Declaration of Independence was still crisp and clean when found in 1989. It sold at Sotheby’s two years later for $2.4 million dollars.

In 1989, when a lucky Philadelphia man found an original 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden in an old painting that he’d bought at a flea market, he truly stumbled across a fortune. It sold at Sotheby’s two years later for $2.4 million dollars. In a similar story from 2006, an 1823 copy of the Declaration was purchased at a thrift store in Tennessee for $2.50 and sold at auction for nearly $478,000.

These stories, and others like them, reappear on the Internet and in news services every year around the Fourth of July. And television shows like “Pawn Stars” and “Antiques Roadshow” are full of people who find fortunes in their attics. So why did I recently tell three people calling for appraisals—all who claimed they had “original” copies of the Declaration of Independence—that their documents were not worth the cost of a consultation, despite the fact that I hadn’t even seen them?

When the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, it needed to be distributed to the public. That very same night, Philadelphia printer John Dunlap hurriedly produced several hundred typeset versions that were sent to the colonies (and England) over the next two days. Today, only 26 copies from that first Dunlap printing are known to exist, and all but two of them are housed in institutions such as libraries, universities, national archives and historical societies. On or around July 19 of that year, an official version was hand-written on parchment by a clerk and signed by all the Congressmen. That iconic original is on display in the rotunda of the National Archives building in Washington, DC.

Later copies of the Declaration were officially commissioned by both the Continental Congress and the colonies. Some of those early typeset versions (printed as one-sided paper proclamations known as broadsides) can also have high value. For example, a January 1777 version, printed by Mary Goddard, was the first to list the names of all the signers.

The 1777 type-set Mary Goddard version was the first to list all of the Declaration’s signers. Some of these copies were also hand-signed by John Hancock.

In 1820, because the original signed parchment was badly fading, John Quincy Adams (as Secretary of State) commissioned William Stone to prepare an ink-transfer engraving identical to the original. Stone finished the copper engraving in 1823 and 200 copies were printed on parchment, for the first time duplicating the hand-written version and the actual signatures. The facsimiles were sent to President James Monroe, members of congress, the Supreme Court, governors and various universities. Now that engraving (not the fragile original) has become the basis for modern reproductions.

The earliest broadsides were printed on rag paper (made from long fragments of cotton), which is very durable and will retain its suppleness and lighter color. Copies printed on parchment (treated hides of calf, goat or sheep) are also durable—stiff, sturdy and clean. These early copies are easily authenticated by size, printer’s marks, paper weave, notations and other identifying points. Conversely, cheaper wood-pulp paper, which began to appear in the middle of the 19th century (and now used almost universally), is easy to tear and will darken, crumble and deteriorate over time. Millions of reproductions of the Declaration have been created, particularly during the centennial celebrations in 1876 and 1976. They are commonly sold in the gift shops of museums, historic sites and even airports. Today, they are reproduced on paper that has been chemically treated to appear stiff, yellowed and parchment-like.

Modern reproductions of the original signed Declaration sell for less than $10 at common souvenir shops.

So, back to those recent phone calls . . . According to the three owners, one copy was bought at a thrift store in central Texas, one was found in the trash by the clean-up crew at the end of a weekend estate sale and the third was found in the wall of an old house being demolished. These were eerily similar stories to the ones that are often rehashed in the news. All were copies of the signed, hand-written original, so they couldn’t date earlier than 1823. The first two were on yellowed, stiff paper in perfect condition, much smaller than the William Stone facsimiles, and were obviously modern souvenirs. The last was on browned, torn and crumbling paper, likely dating to the late 1800s or early 1900s.

Although it makes for good fodder on the news, the odds of actually finding one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence are infinitesimal, especially with so many reproductions thrown into the mix to muddy things up. Most questionable versions are found in estates. Although heirs assume these documents were saved because they are valuable, the truth is they were usually saved as simple commemorative keepsakes and their values are, usually, less than $10.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.

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