Bill of Rights Returns Home
The 1990s Bring New Leads
In 1991, Charles A. Shotwell's descendants contacted attorney Charles Reeder to facilitate the sale of the Bill of Rights. Reeder approached Sotheby's Auction House in New York, which sent representatives to Indiana to view the document and to hear the account of its removal from the Capitol in Raleigh. Sotheby's declined to get involved because of questions about North Carolina's claims to title to the document. Reeder then turned his attention to an auction house in Chicago, Illinois. The owner of the house also had concerns about the title and requested that the commission be increased from 20 to 30 percent; the business relationship soon ended. (North Carolina officials did not learn of these attempted sales until after the recovery of the Bill of Rights in 2003).
In 1995, North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights resurfaced and the State was again given the opportunity to purchase it. Reeder had eventually come into contact with prominent antiques dealer Wayne E. Pratt, who used his agent, attorney John L. Richardson of Washington, D.C., to broker a sale between his unnamed clients and the State. As before, North Carolina officials refused to even consider paying the asking price of $2 million for the return of State property.
Wayne Pratt, Inc., bought an option to purchase the Bill of Rights from the Shotwell heirs in September 1997. But Pratt wanted to authenticate the manuscript prior to purchase. One afternoon in early 2000, three men and a young woman with an oversized cardboard container visited the offices of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University in downtown Washington. They had an appointment to have a document appraised for authenticity. The foursome refused to identify themselves; two of them did not speak at all but had the appearance of bodyguards (as in fact they were). Project director Charlene Bickford and two members of her staff were first shown photographs, and then the actual document was removed from the cardboard art box. Bickford and her colleagues immediately realized that they were looking at an original Bill of Rights, but were unable to determine which of the missing copies it was, as the document was mounted and framed, preventing an examination of the critical docketing information on the back. (Altogether, five of the original fourteen copies, those belonging to Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, were then missing. Two are suspected to have burned, while unidentified copies are housed in the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress.)
Bickford advised the visitors, who refused to disclose where they had obtained the manuscript that they would have enormous difficulty in selling an alienated document that was both priceless and worthless. She had the impression that she was merely confirming what they already knew of the provenance of the manuscript. Bickford also recommended that they have an expert conservator remove the backing from the document to permit an inspection of any endorsements on the reverse. The mysterious visitors quickly packed up and departed. In February 2000, soon after this encounter, Wayne Pratt, Inc., purchased the North Carolina Bill of Rights from two Shotwell descendants for $200,000.
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