Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Bill of Rights, Looted Long Ago, Is Stolen Back

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Bill of Rights, Looted Long Ago, Is Stolen Back

Article excerpt

Though he's known for his work as a bookish appraiser on PBS's "Antiques Roadshow," Wayne Pratt hardly needs to moonlight: In his day job, he's one of New England's most successful antique dealers.

But not long ago, Mr. Pratt - a tall, quiet, slightly balding man with an affinity for heirloom furniture and toys - strayed from his specialty and picked up a long-lost original Bill of Rights, signed by John and Samuel Adams. The document was a perfect match to one stolen from North Carolina's Capitol during Gen. William Sherman's march in 1865. Pratt then made what authorities say was a bad decision: He tried to profit from the public's edicts and the signatures of famous men.

In a sting operation last month, an FBI special agent posing as a Philadelphia philanthropist with a fake $4 million check persuaded Pratt to sell the Bill. Couriered to Philadelphia, the Bill was seized and squirreled home for the first time in 138 years, to a secure hiding place.

The sting is one of the biggest in US history, collaring what archivists here call a "holy relic" - which, if genuine, would be the last of what were once five missing Bills. The controversy probes the fine line between public and private property, and the question of whether Pratt broke the law when he tried to sell the original American edicts. Now, he's at the center of what could be a criminal investigation - and a case to chill the lucrative, oft-mys- terious trade in Colonial charters and famous John Hancocks.

"This may ... affect our industry from the standpoint of the validity of providence and whether we can count on it in the future," says Jim Tucker, director of the Antiques and Collectibles Dealer Association in Cornelius, N.C.

Fourteen Bills of Rights were produced by the First Federal Congress, and George Washington posted them to the 13 soon-to-be states for ratification. Eventually, three went missing and two were burned, but North Carolina's has had the most intriguing adventure. Stolen by an Ohio infantryman when Sherman's troops sacked Raleigh in 1865, it resurfaced twice - in 1897, when news reports placed it on the Indianapolis office wall of Charles Shotwell, who bought it for $5, and again in 1925, when a Pennsylvania dealer contacted North Carolina. Both times, the state rebuffed negotiations, saying it wouldn't pay for what belonged to the people. Now, the Bill may be worth $30 million.

"This is property belonging to a sovereign," insists Frank Whitney, the US attorney handling the case here in Raleigh.

Then the Bill disappeared for a lifetime - turning up 70 years later in 1995, when a proxy brought it tothe North Carolina Department of Archives and History. At that meeting, a threat was made: Buy it - or we sell it to the Middle East. Meanwhile, two missing copies found their ways to the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. …

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