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US man owns 1776 copy of Declaration : Court

A rare 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence belongs to a technology entrepreneur from Virginia, not to the state of Maine, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled.

world Updated: Feb 28, 2009 10:14 IST

A rare 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence belongs to a technology entrepreneur from Virginia, not to the state of Maine, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled on Friday. Richard Adams Jr purchased the document from a London book dealer in 2001 for $475,000. But the state of Maine claimed it belongs to the town of Wiscasset, where it was kept by the town clerk in 1776.

Virginia's high court said that a lower court did not err in its ruling in Adams' favor because Maine didn't prove the document was ever an official town record and Adams is the rightful owner. Adams' attorney, Robert K Richardson, has argued that Wiscasset's town clerk copied the text of the Declaration of Independence into the town's record books on Nov. 10, 1776. It's that transcription, not the document upon which it was based, that is the official town record, Richardson said.

Adams, who gained fame when he founded UUNet Technologies Inc., the first commercial Internet service provider, sued to establish title to the document after learning that Maine was trying to get it back.

Maine Assistant Attorney General Thomas Knowlton argued that Wiscasset never gave up ownership of the document, which is one of about 250 copies printed in 1776 and distributed to towns throughout Massachusetts to be read to residents. Maine was part of Massachusetts at the time.

Maine state archivist David Cheever said he found it "incredible" that the state's rights were trumped by a private collector. Maine contended the document never should have been sold because of a state law which presumes that public documents remain public property unless ownership is expressly relinquished by the government.

Knowlton said the state strongly disagrees with the decision, but acknowledged that it is the end of the road. There are no federal issues that could be pursued to the US Supreme Court. "The unfortunate result is a public record that we believe rightfully belongs to the people of Maine is now in the hands of a private collector in Virginia," Knowlton said.

Richardson said Friday evening that he and Adams are pleased with the decision.

Cheever said only 11 of the approximately 250 copies printed by Ezekiel Russell in Salem, Massachusetts, are known to still exist. One that originally belonged to the town of North Yarmouth also was obtained by a private collector but eventually was returned, Cheever said.