What is the Declaration of Independence Worth?

I used to get a call about a copy of the Declaration of Independence once a week. Current economic conditions in the United States have resulted in many more desperate calls to me to find out if, as they always say, “my copy” of the Declaration of Independence has any value. I now get such calls once, if not twice a day.

Perhaps this blog will help me by helping you understand what it is that you actually have.

The original Declaration of Independence is handwritten on parchment. Parchment is made from animal skin and treated with lime. There is only one and it is in the National Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. The original copy is 24 ½ inches wide and 29 ¾ inches high.

Parchment is not paper. It is made from calfskin, goatskin, or sheepskin. It is not like leather because it is cleaned, bleached, and stretched on a frame, and then scraped with a special knife to make a thin and smooth surface so that someone can write on it with a pen. Really fine parchment is called vellum. If you look at parchment or vellum with a really good magnifying glass, or better still, a jeweler’s loupe, you can see pores on the animal skin. If you look at paper under a microscope, you will usually see fibers that are woven together. In laid paper, you will see the lines from the mould very easily. If you have sensitive fingers, you can feel the difference between paper and parchment, or vellum.

The first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence is called the Dunlap Broadside. I have to be clear what I mean by “printed copy.” With the introduction of electro-type in the mid 1860’s, it was possible to reproduce, photographically, an image. It is printed, yes, but a photographic copy. What you will have is a printed reproduction of a handwritten document. The first printed copy, the Dunlap Broadside, is printed with typeface, and the writing is not handwritten in cursive script.

By that I mean that the print looks like the printing you find in books and newspapers, or in this blog. Copies of this are very valuable, but they are not the original. The Dunlap Broadside will be in fixed type, not be in handwritten form.

The Dunlap Broadside was printed on chain laid paper. Before mechanical papermaking, paper was made from old rags or clothing that were mashed into a liquid pulp. A rectangular mould, a frame with fine wires, resembling in a way,very fine chicken wire stretched across it was dipped into the pulp and the water dripped out through the mould. The remaining pulp would dry into a page of paper. The wire lines from the mould would are visible on the paper if you hold the paper up against the light. Most paper used on reproductions is made on wove paper. If you hold this up against the light, you won’t see any laid lines, or ribs. While wove paper was around in the early days of the American Republic, it wasn’t used on the Dunlap Broadside. ,
One of the signs that you might have a Dunlap Broadside is that only two of the 56 original signers of the Declaration of Independence appear on the Dunlap Broadside, those of John Hancock and Charles Thompson, the Secretary of Congress. The measurements of the Dunlap Broadside are 14 inches wide by 18 inches high. The bottom line reads: Philadelphia: Printed by: John Dunlap.” There have been many reproductions of this over the years in many sizes. Only 25 copies of the original Dunlap Broadside are known to exist. An original Dunlap Broadside sold at auction in 2000 for over $8 million dollars. The buyer was Norman Lear, who brought us so many wonderful television shows in the 1970’s, including “All in the Family.”

There have been exacting reproductions of the Dunlap Broadside that have been done on chain laid paper and done with a printing press. These copies done by the Lakeside Press are identified as reproductions on the backside, but due to the quality of reproduction, some dealers have prices on them for nearly $700.

A man named William J. Stone was commissioned by then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to make a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence . There were 200 copies made on parchment. These, too, can be very valuable These will be in handwritten form. The Stone facsimile measures 14 ½ inches wide and 29 ¾ inches high, but Stone’s name and information appears in the upper left corner and reads: “Engraved by W.J. Stone for the Dept. of State, by order of J.Q. Adams, Sec. of State, July 4th, 1821.” Unofficial knock-off copies of the Stone copy will have “Washington” written on them.

The facsimile created by William Stone is the model for most every reproduction of the Declaration of Independence, and many of the reproductions take out the information in the upper left hand corner of Stone’s facsimile. 201 copies of William Stone’s facsimile were created on vellum. Only 31 copies are known to exist. In the creation of this facsimile, William Stone wet down the ink on the original copy of the Declaration of Independence so he could transfer the document, ultimately to a copper plate. This is the reason why the original copy of the Declaration of Independence is somewhat faded.

The parchment, or vellum, copy of the Stone Declaration of Independence has sold for as high as $400,000. There were rice paper copies of this document made by Stone and some dealers have asked for prices close to $50,000. The dimensions of this copy are: 25 inches by 30 inches.

If you have any of the above, you have an item that could be valuable to very valuable. If you have the original, you are in a great deal of trouble with the law. If you think you have one of the above copies, then feel free to give me a call. I have to give you fair warning: to authenticate your document, I will ask for a retainer fee, and will charge you $50 an hour and any expenses incurred in the process of authentication, such as travel to visit with archivists and conservators who could help me run the necessary tests to determine if the copies are made of the correct materials and match in all ways the copies known to exist.

Most copies that people call me about are the size of a standard piece of paper, which is to say, 8 x 11 inches or so. Those will be reproductions that are not worth much money. However, if they have been in the family for some period of time, they have a value to you and your family as they are part of the heritage your ancestors left to you. It might not hurt for you to take a good long read of it and to do a little reading up on the history of the Declaration of Independence. If I had my way, I would require that every man, woman or child make a pilgrimage to see the actual Declaration of Independence at the National Archives.
Does your copy have value? Even if it is not a collected copy, it is an integral part of being an “American.” The bold, feisty yet rational declaration that we are all born equal and that there is a higher law than the rule of law is your birthright and like a birth certificate, has a value that transcends all cash value. .