“Psst, Buddy. Wanna buy a stolen, original copy of the US Bill of Rights for $5 million?”
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Lost Rights, a nonfiction book by David Howard.
It’s the true story about what happened to North Carolina’s copy of that document – from the time a Union soldier snatched it from the statehouse in Raleigh at the end of the Civil War, to the day in 2003 when the Federal Bureau of Investigation set up a sting operation in Philadelphia to recover it.
Among the strange twists and turns is the fact that, for many of the 138 years since the document disappeared, its location was well known.
A Yankee businessman purchased it for $5 from the Union soldier, and openly displayed it in his home in Indiana. In 1897, an Indianapolis newspaper even published a story about the owner and the document, which led to some feeble attempts by North Carolina to get him to return it.
The book begins in 2000, with three mysterious men and a woman, refusing to identify themselves, meeting with government document experts in Washington.
The visitors plop a copy of the Bill of Rights on a table, ask if it’s authentic, and make a hasty exit with it when the stunned experts say that it appears to be genuine.
As the plot unfolds, we’re introduced to the sales strategy and high-society lifestyle of antique industry big shots, as well as a cast of colorful characters. Most prominent in this story is Wayne Pratt, an antiques dealer who, at the time, was a high-profile appraiser on the popular PBS series “Antiques Roadshow.”
We also get a fascinating look at document experts, laboring in obscurity but so expert that they can recognize the handwriting of an individual 18th-century government clerk.
In 1791, three clerks inscribed 14 copies of the Bill of Rights on parchment – one for the federal government and one for each of the 13 states. Today, four copies remain missing.
The modern-day saga of North Carolina’s copy of the document includes Pratt’s lengthy efforts to purchase it from the Indiana family. About the same time that Pratt was working to procure the document, the public was captivated by news that an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, found behind a painting purchased for $4, was auctioned for $8.1 million.
The author of “Lost Rights,” David Howard, is a freelance writer and executive editor of Bicycling magazine.
He writes clear explanations of technical aspects of the story, such as the differences between paper and parchment, and how this affects the legibility of the ink on historic documents. His description of the various generations of the Indiana family and their relationship to the document is interesting, and so are the details about many of the key players in the story.
But Howard’s style of introducing each new character tends to be formulistic: A sentence or two such as, “A balding man in his sixties, Harmelin had a prominent nose, paper-thin lips and a sandpapery voice.” Parts of the book seem disorganized as well, such as when, after the climactic scene involving the North Carolina document, we are suddenly faced with a chapter about the pursuit of old documents elsewhere, including 18th-century Mexico.
Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003, has a prominent role in the story of this copy of the Bill of Rights, but the author goes into details of the museum after the battle was over – details that are irrelevant to this book.
Today, the popularity of “Antiques Roadshow” demonstrates the widespread public interest in historic objects. “Lost Rights” reminds us, however, that it was not always so. As Howard explains, many such documents that we now consider priceless were treated with utter carelessness during much of our country’s history. South Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights, for example, spent decades in a basement under dripping steam pipes.
Not all the viewers of “Antiques Roadshow” will necessarily find the tracking of a document as fascinating as that of a painting or an expensive piece of jewelry. For those who do, however, “Lost Rights” offers a thorough recounting of the surprising journey of a lost relic of American history.
Mike Revzin is a journalist.