Published: April 1, 2003
By R. Scudder Smith
WOODBURY, CONN. — Wayne Pratt, well-known antiques dealer with shops on both Main Street in Woodbury and Nantucket, says that he is “prepared to participate in an open, public civil proceeding to determine the provenance and ownership of a long-lost copy of the Bill of Rights that North Carolina claims belongs to it.”
This document, owned by Pratt for a number of years, was seized in a sting operation by the FBI on March 18 when in the process of being sold to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The agents acted under a sealed seizure warrant signed by Chief District Judge Terrence Boyle in Raleigh, N.C., five days earlier.
At least 14 copies of the Bill of Rights, handwritten, were made when the first ten amendments to the Constitution were ratified in 1791. One copy was given to each of the original states, and one was retained by the federal government. At present, about five states have either lost or misplaced their copies.
North Carolina’s copy disappeared at the end of the Civil War and it is the belief of historians that it was stolen from the statehouse in April 1864 by a Union soldier while General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops marched through Raleigh. The soldier who stole it took it with him to his home in Ohio and sold it about one year later.
According to a news article in the March 20 issue of The News and Observer in Raleigh, the following took place:
At a two-hour meeting Tuesday [March 18] in Philadelphia, an FBI agent posed as a financier buying the document for the National Constitution Center. The agent met with the seller’s broker. After the broker confirmed the transfer of the money to the seller’s bank account, the broker made a call.
“A courier appeared with this document in a cardboard box, if you can believe that,” said Jeffery Lampinski, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia office. But the wire transfer was a ruse, arranged with the bank’s help. As soon as the exchange was made, the undercover agent revealed that he was serving a seizure warrant issued in Raleigh by Federal Judge Terrance Boyle and that the bank transfer was not real, authorities said. The asking price for the document was $5 million. According to archivists the value of the supposed North Carolina copy of the Bill of Rights is $20/30 million.
Hugh Stevens, Pratt’s attorney, indicated his firm was notified by federal prosecutors on Tuesday, March 25, that his client was the subject of a criminal investigation. He went on to say “a criminal case is unwarranted,” adding “even the US attorney has acknowledged that if the document was ‘stolen,’ the alleged the theft did not occur within the lifetime of anyone now alive.”
Antiques and The Arts Weekly has learned that there is a bill of sale for the document and there was never any indication that the rdf_Description was stolen. “I have done nothing wrong and I am sure that will be proven out,” Pratt said.
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