Claim: A lucky bargain hunter became a millionaire after finding an original print of the Declaration of Independence in the frame of an old painting.
Origins: Urban legendry includes numerous "windfall" tales involving fortuitous discoveries of seemingly ordinary objects that proved to be extraordinarily valuable. (See our King of the Rode article for one example.)
Every now and then one of these windfall things turns out to be for real, however.
In 1989, a Philadelphia financial analyst bought an old painting (a depiction of a country scene) for $4 at a flea market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, mostly because he liked the frame. He liked it even more once he found that the painting housed a rare and valuable document.
The buyer was investigating a tear in the canvas, and the frame fell apart in his hands when he attempted to detach it from the painting, leading him to discover a folded document which appeared to be an old copy of the Declaration of Independence stored between the canvas and its wood backing. After a friend who collected Civil War memorabilia advised him to have it appraised, he learned that the document was in fact a rare original Dunlap broadside, one of 500 official copies from the first printing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Only twenty-three similar copies were known to exist before this find, of which a mere two were privately owned:
This rare document was offered for sale by Sotheby's on
The copy sold [by Sotheby's] is a crisp, clean broadside, creased along lines where it had been folded. It was printed by John Dunlap on July 4, 1776, to carry news of America's independence to the citizens of the 13 colonies. It is one of 24 known copies of the Declaration, and one of only three remaining in private hands.
The previous owner, who was not identified, had told Sotheby's he bought a torn painting for $4 in a flea market in Adamstown, Pa., because he was interested in its frame. When he got home, he said, he removed the
Mr. Redden said he thought the man would be "rather stunned" to learn the price it had brought.
This document was put up for sale again in June 2000, fetching an
When TV producer and philanthropist Norman Lear learned that the Dunlap broadside would be auctioned, he saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring it to the American people. Lear purchased it and development of the project now known as the Declaration of Independence Road Trip began.
After Michael Sparks' lucky find made the news in February 2007, Stan Caffy contacted reporter Mary Hance of the Tennessean and claimed that he was the one who had (unwittingly) donated the valuable document to the Music City Thrift store in March 2006:
For years, the document hung in Stan Caffy's garage, where he works on bicycles as a hobby.
He married his wife, Linda, a little more than a year ago. As part of the ritual of combining households, she pushed him to clean out the garage, which had filled up with all sorts of extraneous things.
"I used to be a packrat but now I am trying to get rid of things. The best I can recall, we had a little debate about whether to keep it (the Declaration) or donate it and she won."
And so it was that Linda took the Declaration along with a pile of other
"I'm happy for the Sparks guy," Stan said. "If I still had it, it would still be hanging here in the garage and I still wouldn't know it was worth all that. It is just life. So I'm not really upset. But you can't help but feel not very smart for doing it."
Last updated: 3 July 2014
Blau, Eleanor. "Declaration of Independence Sells for $2.4 Million." The New York Times. 14 June 1991. Hance, Mary. "Turns Out, Expensive Document Was Tossed by Guy Cleaning Out His Garage." The Tennessean. 23 February 2007. Trillin, Calvin. "Lucky Find." The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. 10 April 1991 (p. A11). Winship, Frederick. "First Printing of Declaration Sold for $2.42 Million." United Press International. 14 June 1991. Associated Press "Declaration of Independence for $2.48." 23 February 2007. Associated Press "Declaration Nets Lucky Owner Huge Profit." 23 March 2007. The Courier-Journal. "$4 Painting Yields $2.42 Million Bid." 14 June 1991 (p. A2). Los Angeles Times. "Declaration Copy Sold for $2.4 Million." 14 June 1991 (p. A19). Los Angeles Times. "Found, Under $4 Flea-Market Art: A $1-Million Memento from 1776." 3 April 1991 (p. A14). Reuters. "Declaration of Independence Copy Sold Online." 30 June 2000.