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March 15, 2001
Contact: Jim Henderson
Dispute Over Copy of Declaration
of Independence to be Settled
The auction buyers of a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence have agreed to turn over possession of the document to the Town of North Yarmouth and the State Archivist of Maine, after new information about the origin of the document came to light during the pendency of a lawsuit over its ownership. During the past year, research has been conducted to determine the origin of this early imprint of the Declaration of Independence, which surfaced in the spring of 1999. The document has been analyzed by public officials and the purchasers in an effort to clarify the rights of ownership to the document.
“I am pleased that this issue will be resolved in an amicable manner by the all the parties involved,” said Secretary of State Dan A. Gwadosky, whose department includes the Maine State Archives, which oversees the retention and preservation of state and many municipal documents. “It is particularly gratifying to know that everyone worked together in determining the chain of title to this important historic record.”
“We are agreeing to give up our claim to this early version of the Declaration of Independence because we feel, based upon what we now know, that it is the responsible thing to do in this case,” said Seth Kaller, a principal of Kaller’s American Gallery, Inc., a prominent New York City dealer in historic manuscripts specializing in building museum collections, who was also one of the buyers.
This version of the Declaration of Independence, which was printed in broadside form in Salem, Massachusetts in July 1776, under the authority of the Executive Council of Massachusetts Bay, was delivered to Ministers and Town Clerks throughout the jurisdiction as a means of disseminating its content to the people. This particular copy was sent to the Congregational Minister and Town Clerk of North Yarmouth. It was discovered in the home of Nellie W. Leighton, a long-term resident of North Yarmouth, following her death in May, 1999. It was sold on June 26, 1999 by Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, and has since been the object of a lawsuit brought by the State Archivist of Maine and the Town of North Yarmouth against the two buyers, Stanley Klos, a Pittsburgh businessman and historic manuscript collector and Kaller’s American Gallery, Inc.
The buyers contended that the original broadside was given away or discarded by the Town as soon as it had been copied into a permanent record book, a practice which, on occasion, did occur in public jurisdictions before laws and regulations more closely defined the custodial circumstances of public records. During the course of the lawsuit, however, evidence came to light which showed that the document had been retained by the Town of North Yarmouth for an extended period of time.
Analysis of this particular document revealed features unique to it, consistent with it being placed in a systematic filing scheme. Among other things, an identifying number, “16,” was discovered on the reverse of the document. After a thorough examination of the Town’s archives, it was discovered that this docketing number followed in sequence other documents, similarly docketed, which still remain in the North Yarmouth archives, thus indicating that this specific imprint had been retained for a time as a municipal record.
It is still not known when the Declaration left the Town’s hands or how it came into the possession of Mrs. Leighton, whose late husband was a descendent of colonial-era residents of North Yarmouth, including the sister of David Mitchell, the Town Clerk in 1776. It is unlikely, however, that Mrs. Leighton was ever aware that she possessed a copy of the Declaration of Independence. As a founding member of the North Yarmouth Historical Society, a contributor to the Town’s tri-centennial history, an ardent genealogist, and a forceful advocate for improving the Town’s archival practices, it is considered improbable that she would have knowingly kept such an important historical document at her home, or failed to publicize its existence.
The State of Maine sought to recover the document under a 1989 statute which presumes that a public document remains public property until ownership is expressly relinquished by the government. The statute, which is yet to be tested in court, places the burden of proving ownership on the private holder of a governmental record, regardless of the age of the record.
Until the chain of title was demonstrated on behalf of the Town of North Yarmouth, Kaller and Klos were anxious to challenge this feature of the law. Kaller said: “We were eager to take on this issue. In the final analysis, however, our primary goal is to preserve America’s historic documents, whether in public or private hands.”
Representatives of North Yarmouth, the State of Maine, and the buyers worked cooperatively with each other during this lawsuit to share information that would shed light on the chain of title to this rare copy of the Declaration of Independence.
“We are very grateful to Mr. Klos and Kaller’s for their willingness to objectively examine the archival evidence in this case which supported the claim of the Town of North Yarmouth to ownership of this important document,” said James Henderson, State Archivist of Maine. “We are also pleased that the buyers and the auctioneer (Mr. Kaja Veilleux) have taken such good care of the document during the pendency of this lawsuit and have acted in such a responsible manner in bringing this litigation to a conclusion,” Henderson added.
In a mutual good will effort, attempts are now being made to define arrangements by which this imprint of the Declaration of Independence may reach a broader public audience.