Unhand That Parchment! [Lost & Found]

By Christian DeBenedetti | August 8, 2010

In order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, give me back that Bill of Rights!

FYI, it's not a good idea to try and sell the Bill of Rights.

In the new non-fiction book Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic, David Howard retraces the surreal travels of an original, handwritten copy of the Bill of Rights. The 221-year-old document was stolen by an infantryman in Sherman’s army at the end of the Civil War and went missing for 138 years before turning up in an FBI sting in 2003. Here, Howard talks about his journey in pursuit of a prized parchment estimated to be worth as much as $30 million.

How far can a multimillion-dollar object like an original Bill of Rights really travel?

Pretty far, actually, during that many years on the lam. The soldier who looted it took it home to Ohio and sold it a year later for $5, and the guy who bought it carried the parchment all over the Northeast before settling in Indiana. And then in recent years the Bill of Rights began moving again; I went to Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, North Carolina, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and D.C., among other places.

What was the oddest place the artifact turned up?

It hung on the wall of a nursing home for a while. And in a library vault. But the strangest spot was probably in the home of an ultra-high-end antiques dealer in Litchfield, Connecticut. That guy, Peter Tillou, told me that for a while he kept the Bill of Rights under his bed.

Any edgy moments?

I think people in the story were more scared of me than anything. It was a very sensitive matter involving a lot of high-end dealers of old things who didn’t know what I was going to write, and a lot of people weren’t happy when I kept showing up. I went to one antiquarian show to find a dealer who had been avoiding me, and his face registered, “Oh God, him again.” I also had a Chicago auctioneer kind of threaten me.

But both you and the Bill of Rights survived.

We did. The document is now in a vault in Raleigh, back where it belongs, and I pieced together the whole story. Funny thing is, with all that rooting around in the lives of wealthy strangers, probably the scariest single moment came after I interviewed Wayne Pratt, the antiques-dealer superstar who was trying to sell the Bill of Rights when the FBI pulled off the sting. He had never spoken to any journalist about it when he agreed to talk, but he wouldn’t let me tape the interview, so I had to take notes by hand. Then, when I flew to Chicago for another interview, I nearly left that notebook on the plane. This would have been catastrophic, because by then Pratt had died of heart failure.

I literally stood up to walk off the plane, and a guy across the aisle said, “Is that yours?” And pointed to the seat pocket in front of where I’d been sitting. I said, “Oh, my God, it is. Thanks.” It’s amazing, sometimes, the kindness of strangers.

You can buy Dave’s brand new book here.

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