A lucky bargain hunter became a millionaire after finding an original print of the Declaration of Independence in the frame of an old painting.
Every now and then, one of these "windfall" things turns out to be for real. (See our King of the Rode
article for one that's decidedly pure legend.)
In 1989, a Philadelphia financial analyst discovered something unusual in an old picture he'd bought for $4 at a flea market in Adamstown, PA. He'd purchased the painting (an old, torn depiction of a country scene) because he liked the frame. He liked it even more once he discovered that a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence lurked within it.
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 between the canvas and wood backing. A friend who collected Civil War memorabilia advised him to have it appraised.
It was real: one of 500 official copies from the first printing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. (Only twenty-four similar copies were known to exist before this find, of which a mere three were privately owned.) This rare document was offered for sale by Sotheby's on 4 June
1991, and the lucky find fetched even more than had been anticipated: the $800,000 to $1.2 million
estimate turned into $2.42 million
by the sound of the
What did Donald Scheer of Atlanta, head of Visual Equities Inc., get for his $2.42 million?
Months prior to the auction, Sotheby's had confirmed the printed broadsheet not only as authentic but also as one of the three finest known, as crisp as it was on the evening it was printed by John Dunlap to carry the news of America's independence to the people of the thirteen colonies. (This copy was put up for sale again in June 2000, fetching a $8.14 million
bid from television producer Norman Lear in an online auction.)
Donald Scheer's charming story was turned to a commercial purpose: In the autumn of 1997, SunAmerica ran TV commercials based on his tale, utilizing the theme that you could either hope to get lucky like Scheer did, or you could work out an investment plan with SunAmerica.
March 2006 saw a smaller-scale repetition of Scheer's experience when Michael Sparks was browsing a thrift shop in Nashville, Tennessee, and happened upon a yellowed, shellacked, rolled-up document. Learning from a clerk that the item could be had for a mere $2.48, Sparks purchased it, took it home, and after doing some online research eventually learned that he had bought one of 200 "official copies" of the Declaration of Independence commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1820. He spent nearly a year authenticating and conserving the document before selling it at auction in March 2007,
where it fetched $477,650.
After Michael Sparks' lucky find made the news in February 2007, Stan Caffy contacted reporter Mary Hance of the Tennessean
and told her that he was the one who had (unwittingly) donated the valuable document to the Music City Thrift store in March 2006:
"I bought it at a yard sale in Donelson about 10 years, ago, in Donelson Hills, I think," said Stan Caffy, a pipe fitter.
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 stuff — an antique table, a shower massage head, and a faucet — to donate to the Music City Thrift store last March.
"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."
Barbara "take the money and run; aka, 'flee market'" Mikkelson
2 July 2011
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