A Declaration falls through the cracks

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to locate a rare, vintage copy of the nation's founding document, try looking behind the filing cabinet.

That was a lesson learned the hard way at the Supreme Court, where a 185-year-old facsimile of the Declaration of Independence gathered dust for seven years, tucked behind the office furniture, a court spokeswoman acknowledged this week.

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Supreme Court 'loses' document:
Vintage copy of Declaration of Independence had fallen behind file cabinet

Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to locate a rare, vintage copy of the nation's founding document, try looking behind the filing cabinet.
That was a lesson learned the hard way at the Supreme Court, where a 175-year-old facsimile of the Declaration of Independence gathered dust for seven years, tucked behind the office furniture, a court spokeswoman acknowledged this week.

Commissioned by John Quincy Adams when he was secretary of state, the 1823 engraving of the Declaration is now hanging in a court corridor with a notation describing its significance. Valued at perhaps $500,000, it is one of about 30 copies known to exist.

The disclosure about the so-called Stone facsimile, named after engraver William Stone, comes amid increasing concern over the nation's treatment of its historic artifacts. Last fall, auditors for the National Archives criticized several presidential libraries -- particularly the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. -- for lax control over their holdings.

At the Supreme Court, the problem was blamed on the disorder that comes with an office face-lift.

The document had hung in the clerk's office of the 73-year-old Supreme Court building until 1996, when workers arrived to remodel the area, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said Friday. At that point, it was taken down and stuck behind an automated filing cabinet.

"When an office goes through renovation, things get moved around," Arberg said. "It was definitely safe where it was."

And there it stayed until 2003, when an official realized it was missing and, presumably, issued some declarations that had nothing to do with the pursuit of happiness. With the help of a longtime staffer in the clerk's office, the Declaration was quickly located. After conservation measures and reframing, it was placed on display in the court's Lower Great Hall in 2006.

On permanent display at the National Archives in Washington, the original Declaration was fraying and fading even a half-century after it announced the tumultuous birth of the United States. Over the years, craftsmen had produced some copies. But unlike the original, they were embellished with artistic touches and, in some cases, slightly different wording.

They were distributed to the Senate, the House of Representatives, various government agencies and surviving luminaries of the Revolution -- among them the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. Two copies went to the Supreme Court, though officials there said Friday that only one was sent from the Capitol to the court's new building in 1935.

In the 1840s, the copper plate used by Stone was employed to make an unknown number of additional copies of the Declaration on rice paper. More common than the vellum copies, they are also less valuable.

The most recent public sale of a Stone facsimile with the same pedigree as the Supreme Court's occurred in March, when a Utah investment company paid more than $477,000 at auction.

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