Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Review: "Lost Rights"

David Howard's Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) chronicles the sordid story of North Carolina's original copy of the Bill of Rights, stolen from the state capital by a Union soldier in 1865 and later in the possession of an Indianapolis family for decades (most of which time it spent hanging on a living room wall).

Howard's story concentrates on the most recent chapters of the document's history (with occasional "flashback" segments highlighting its earlier travels). During the late 1990s, the Shotwell family began pursuing options to sell the Bill of Rights, including offering it for sale by a major auction house. Because of the serious provenance questions (no known copies of the document other than those sent to the states exist), Christie's and Sotheby's wanted nothing to do with the sale, so the family turned to others.

In 2000, the Bill of Rights was acquired by Connecticut antiques dealer Wayne Pratt and real estate broker Bob Matthews; Pratt and associates began negotiating the sale of the parchment to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In the end, an FBI sting led to the Bill of Rights being returned to North Carolina, after which a five-year legal battle over ownership of the document ensued.

This is a complicated story, and Howard has done well in his recounting of it. He brings in many of the players, from documentary editors at the First Federal Congress project who authenticated the document, to rare book dealer Bill Reese and manuscript dealer Seth Kaller (who were involved at various stages of the negotiations) to Pratt (Howard was the only reporter Pratt gave interviews to about this subject) to FBI agent Bob Wittman (arranger of the sting) and numerous others. He tracks down some interesting historical context about the copy of the Bill of Rights (including previous attempts in the 1890s and 1920s that might have seen it return home sooner), and delves into the murky and turbulent waters of replevin cases and the different ways in which archives and repositories deal with such thorny issues.

Howard unravels some of the most intriguing threads of this case, including Pratt's own background (much embellished in his own telling), the not-always-quite-above-board career of his co-purchaser Bob Matthews, and the motives of those involved throughout the back-and-forth over the document. I particularly liked his treatment of the same event (meetings, &c.) from differing perspectives - a nice touch.

For the most part, Lost Rights reads like a good thriller. Howard paces out the narrative well, making many of his chapters end on the cliff's edge (and then following them with a background chapter before getting the reader back to the action; this was frustrating a few times when the background seemed a bit like filler, but generally I wasn't too bothered by the tactic). He "gets" the case quite well, and captures the complex nature of the replevin process, and how draining it can be for all concerned.

There were, particularly in the first section of the book, some places where I thought another pass by the copy-editor would have been helpful (I cringed at the sentence "The year was June 1789"). And there are a few minor errors in the text: the book collector Sir Thomas Phillipps' name is misspelled, for example, and I think J. Franklin Jameson would be surprised to hear himself described as "one of the nation's first historians" (I think Howard meant professionally-trained historians). Beyond these, I took issue with the author's characterization of the Bill of Rights and other historical documents as "sacred relics" - maybe I'm jaded, but I just don't find this a useful way of thinking about such things. Important, yes, but not in a religious sense.

Lost Rights is certainly a book that collectors, dealers, and librarians/archivists should read and pay attention to, and it also has much to offer for the reader with a casual interest in the field. I enjoyed it very much.

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