Ownership of Declaration Copy Disputed

    The State of Maine and an Internet pioneer are arguing over ownership of a rare copy of the
Declaration of Independence. The argument escalated to the point where it went to the Maine’s highest court last January.

    A lawyer for Richard L. Adams Jr. told the Virginia Supreme Court there is no evidence the copy of the Declaration — one of about 250 printed in 1776 and distributed to towns throughout Massachusetts — was ever an official record kept by the town of Wiscasset, Maine. Therefore, he contends, his client is the rightful owner, having bought it from a London book dealer in 2001 for $475,000.

    However, Maine’s attorney argued that Wiscasset never relinquished ownership of the document. Fairfax County Circuit Judge R. Terrence Ney ruled in favor of Adams in 2008, the multimillionaire founder of UUNet Technologies Inc., the first commercial Internet service provider. Adams had filed suit to establish title to the document after learning that Maine officials were considering trying to get it back.

    Adams’ attorney, Robert K. Richardson, maintains Wiscasset’s town clerk hand-copied the text of the Declaration of Independence into the town’s record books on November 10, 1776. To Richardson and his client, the transcription—not the original document that was copied, is the official town record.

    The original copy was retained by the town clerk, however, from as early as 1885 until 1929. It was discovered in 1994 by an estate auctioneer who was going through papers of a former town clerk.

    If Maine wins the case, Adams can try to recoup his money from the London dealer. If the state loses, it has no real recourse because there are no federal issues in play that could be pursued to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    It is likely the justices will issue their decision on February 27.

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