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July 4, 2020

Man Became a Millionaire After Finding a Copy of the Declaration of Independence in the Frame of an Old Painting He Bought for Only $4 in 1989

In 1989, a Philadelphia financial analyst bought an old painting for $4 at a flea market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, mostly because he liked the frame. When the owner removed the painting, the frame fell apart and he found a folded document between the canvas and wood backing that appeared to be an old copy of the Declaration of Independence. A friend who collects Civil War memorabilia advised him to have it appraised.

To his amazement, that folded up paper turned out to be a copy of the Declaration of Independence. And not just any copy. A few months later, a historian would confirm that it was an original Dunlap copy, bringing the known total up to 25.

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 a $2.42 million sale by the sound of the gavel.

The document was put up for sale again on June 29, 2000, fetching an $8.14 million bid from television producer Norman Lear in an online auction. It then became the centerpiece of the Norman Lear Center’s Declaration of Independence Road Trip, which took it on a three-and-a-half year cross-country tour.

In the late hours of July 4, 1776, the original signed Declaration was brought to a nearby printing press shop owned by a 29 year old Irish immigrant named John Dunlap. Dunlap proceeded to print dozens of copies of the Declaration. These copies were then distributed up and down the east coast in the following days. George Washington ordered that a copy be of the Declaration be read aloud to every one of his troops. Another Dunlap print was sent to King George back in England.

The majority of the Dunlap prints were discarded or destroyed over time. In 1949, 14 copies of the Dunlap broadside were known to exist. The number had increased to 21 by 1975. There were 24 known copies of the Dunlap broadside in 1989, when a 25th broadside was discovered behind a painting bought for $4 at a flea market.

On July 2, 2009, it was announced that a 26th Dunlap broadside was discovered in The National Archives in Kew, England. It is currently unknown how this copy came to the archive, but one possibility is that it was captured from an American coastal ship intercepted during the War of Independence.


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