January 22, 2020
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Greenbush man finds Declaration of Independence copies in roadside garbage

GREENBUSH, Maine — Roger Sanborn likes to make treasure of trash.

More than 20 years ago, he pulled over on a Maine road and saved a couple of old picture frames from a junk pile with the intent of making a gift for his cousin.

Inside the tossed-away picture frames were a painting of a sailboat and a photo of a military aircraft. When Sanborn removed the old images, he uncovered two copies of the Declaration of Independence.

The now-54-year-old Sanborn said he was shocked at the find. He stored the documents between blank sheets of paper and two pieces of stiff cardboard, bound the bundle with twine and found a safe spot for it.

“I try to take as good care of them as I can, just in case they’re valuable,” Sanborn said Monday as he unwrapped the documents.

One of the copies is on dark brown paper with a stamp in the lower left-hand corner that reads “Presented by John Hancock Life Insurance Company, Boston, Massachusetts.”

The other is on cleaner-looking paper, but is stained brown in spots, possibly by coming in contact with the wood of the picture frame.

The pieces of paper measure about 13¾-by-15¾ inches, but the edges of the darkened copy are folded in, possibly by a former owner who was trying to force it to fit inside a frame.

Last week, as Sanborn was preparing to move into a Greenbush apartment, he showed the documents to his brother-in-law, who then called the Bangor Daily News.

Unfortunately for Sanborn, it’s unlikely that his copies of the Declaration of Independence are valuable, according to Dana Lippitt, curator of the Bangor Museum and Center for History, which is run by the Bangor Historical Society.

“To me, they look like souvenirs,” Lippitt said Monday afternoon after looking at photographs of the documents.

The “Presented by John Hancock Life Insurance Company” stamp indicates that the company may have distributed reproductions to customers or used them as a draw for potential customers. Also, the characteristics of Sanborn’s documents don’t match with those of the most valuable copies.

According to Lippitt, most valuable copies of the Declaration of Independence come from one of three sources: the William Stone facsimile, a Benjamin Owen Tyler engraving or John Dunlap’s broadside copies.

The original Declaration, housed in the National Archives, measures 24 by 30 inches.

Stone’s copies were created from a copperplate engraving in 1823 and might be slightly smaller than the original because they are printed on vellum, which shrinks. That effort was commissioned by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to create exact copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Just 200 copies were made and distributed, mostly to surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence and other individuals who played a role in founding the nation.

Tyler created his facsimile in 1818 at the urging of Thomas Jefferson, who had a rough draft of the Declaration, but wanted something more formal. His prints are the same size as the original.

Dunlap’s copies came first, and were sent out to colonial cities to inform locals of the nation’s declaration just days after the signing of the original document. Dunlap’s work is easier to identify than the other facsimiles because it does not include signatures, according to Lippitt.

Any of these three types of copies can be highly valuable.

In 2007, a lucky shopper purchased a Stone copy for $2.48 at a thrift sale. It later sold at auction for $477,650. Another Stone print sold in 2009 for $693,500. Some Tyler prints have sold for around $25,000.

Lippitt said one or two people call the museum each year after finding a copy of the Declaration of Independence or another important historical document in their walls or a picture frame.

“That type of thing seems to happen pretty frequently,” she said. “It’s pretty rare that it’s something valuable.”

Lippitt said there’s a chance Sanborn’s prints are worth something, but it’s unlikely that they’re worth as much as some of the higher-ticket prints from Stone, Tyler or Dunlap.

“To be sure, they should take them to a reputable auction house,” Lippitt said.

The Bangor Historical Society has two authentic copies of the Declaration of Independence. One is available for viewing at the Eastern Maine Development Corp. board room in Bangor and the other is in storage at the museum because of its fragile condition.

“I always enjoy the story of how and where these documents were found, and wonder why someone would tuck them away like that,” Lippitt said.

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