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For the past year, a rare early copy of the Declaration of Independence has hung unassumingly in a side hallway at the Supreme Court. But how did it get there, and where was it before it went on public display? Therein lies a tale. Court officials confirmed last week that the 1824 vellum copy had spent seven forgotten years hidden behind a filing cabinet at the Court clerk’s office, until it was discovered in 2003, fixed up, and displayed for public viewing in 2006. The copy, one of only 200 made from the 1776 original, would likely fetch $500,000 or more if sold on the open market, according to an expert dealer in historic documents. The story of the document begins in 1820, when then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams ordered copies made of the Declaration, out of concern about the condition of the 1776 original. The document signed in Philadelphia had been kept in several locations, had been furled and unfurled, and was already beginning to fade. The future president hired a D.C. engraver named William Stone to execute a small number of copies to be sent to the states, to members of Congress, and to the Supreme Court. Stone used a wet-transfer method that damaged the original further by drawing some of its ink away to make a copy. From the paper copy, Stone made a copperplate engraving that then made a strong impression when printed on vellum, a parchment made from animal skin. The vellum copies were completed and distributed in 1824. “It is as close to the original Declaration as you can possibly get,” says Elwin Fraley, a collector and dealer of rare documents who operates History Buff Inc. in Minnesota and Florida. “They give you goose bumps when you see them. They are extremely valuable.” Fraley was surprised to hear that the Court’s copy was misplaced for such a long time. The Court’s copy had hung in the clerk’s office since the building opened in 1935. But when the clerk’s office underwent renovations in 1996, an unnamed employee apparently put the document behind one of the office’s Lektrievers, which are automated filing cabinets. It was done for “safekeeping,” a Court spokeswoman says. There, Court officials say, it was “forgotten” for unexplained reasons until the curator’s office launched a successful search for it in 2003. Once it was found behind the cabinet, some restoration work and reframing was done. In 2006 it was placed back on display, but not in the clerk’s office. Instead, it hangs near a ground-floor elevator where it can be viewed by visitors to the Court. The copy is a remarkably vivid rendition of the faded original, which is on view at the National Archives. Fraley says the value of historical documents depends on their rarity, importance, and condition. A good-quality 1824 vellum copy of the Declaration would rate high on all three counts, he says. Some of the 200 copies are in poor condition and some have fallen into private hands, says Fraley. Within the past year, Fraley says, another William Stone copy of the Declaration sold for approximately $450,000. The sale on Dec. 18 of a copy of the Magna Carta for more than $21 million, Fraley says, suggests that the value of such documents is on the rise. As a result, though he emphasizes the high court would never sell its copy, Fraley estimates the price of a Declaration copy from 1824 would likely pass the half-million-dollar mark now. Fraley says he is always on the lookout for copies, but he adds, “If I had one, I’d probably leave it to my grandchildren.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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