Anyone who has visited the National Archives in Washington D.C. and squinted at the original, engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence on display may assume that the faint text is the result of 237 years of handling, transferal and display.
In reality, the Declaration's illegibility may be the result of a process used to copy it in the 1840s. The result of that copying process - called anastatic reproduction - was two facsimiles of the original. One of these hung in Philadelphia's Independence Hall. The other, traversing a path blurred by the passage of time and history, found its way to a flea market, where it was priced at a mere $100.
Fortunately, Tom Lingenfelter, a Bucks County dealer in rare historical documents, happened upon it. "At first," he remembers, "I didn't think it was all that rare. I assumed it was one of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition editions." Centennial copies of the Declaration were mass produced, often decorated with a spread-eagle border, and inserted into guide books. For $1 in 19th Century currency, they could be purchased as souvenirs. Today, they are rare but not impossible to find and are valued at $300-$800, depending on condition.
Lingenfelter considered purchasing what he thought was a Centennial document. But he passed it by.
As he wandered the rest of the stalls, however, something nagged at him, some notion that he should pick up the copy anyway. He returned to the seller and paid the requested price.
Initially, he thought little of it, believing the seller's claim that it was nothing more than a historical trinket. He took no special care to display the Declaration and, in fact, brought it to his daughter's school as a show-and-tell item.
Upon further inspection, the value of the piece began to reveal itself. The words "anastatic fac-simile" were printed on the bottom left of the broadside, which sparked Lingenfelter's investigative urge. Anastatic, he learned, referred to a 1840s print reproduction procedure that involved a direct contact impression, using an acid-based solution to burn text onto a zinc plate, from which subsequent copies were struck. The resulting facsimiles were state-of-the-art representations for the time but also - to the horror of preservationists, historians and document specialists worldwide - damaging to the originals.
As a result, the anastatic process was used exactly twice on the original Declaration before it was halted, making Lingenfelter's find extraordinarily rare. In addition, because the creation of the facsimile damaged the original, his anastatic copy more closely represents the document signed by the members of the Continental Congress in 1776.
A Historical Document and Ephemera Consultant has therefore valued the Lingenfelter Declaration as "priceless."
The facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, whose find Lingenfelter is quick to characterize as "nothing short of serendipitous," is being incorporated into the July 4th festivities at Valley Forge National Historical Park in the Visitor Center, where it will be displayed for public view.
Tom Lingenfelter's background includes time as a U.S. Counter-intelligence Special Agent, business owner, athlete, political activist, historian, and public school teacher. More of his story is available online.