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Of Tag Sales and the Declaration of Independence

By Philip R. Devlin

(June 30, 2023) — Like tag sales, thrift stores, and flea markets? You’d like them even more if you stumbled across an original copy of the Declaration of Independence; in fact, it could be a life-changing experience. Two early copies of the Declaration have been found and sold in the past thirty years for an enormous amount of money.  One was found at a flea market in Pennsylvania; the other was found in a thrift store in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Declaration, of course, was approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, but was not signed immediately. The Congress contracted with a well-known Philadelphia printer named John Dunlap to print two hundred copies of the document as a broadside. The printed copies were then distributed via courier to prominent people and organizations in the thirteen colonies. Many of these copies were read aloud in public places; others were probably posted for the public to read. As possessing a copy or printing one might be considered an act of sedition, many of the original Dunlap copies were probably hidden or destroyed.

One hidden copy surfaced at a flea market in Pennsylvania in 1989 quite by accident. A flea market customer spied a painting in a frame that he liked. Thinking that the frame would be suitable for something else he had in mind, the man purchased the painting for $4. He then took it home and cut out the original painting. Out fell one of the Dunlap printings of the Declaration! In June 1991, that copy sold for $2.42 million.  Nine years later, the Dunlap copy re-sold for $8.1 million!

A non-Dunlap copy from 1823 sold in March 2007 for $477,650. This particular copy was purchased from a Knoxville, Tennessee thrift store for $2.49! The man who donated it to the thrift store had previously had it hanging in his workshop. Claiming to be under pressure from his wife to clean up his shop, the guy donated it to the store in Nashville, where it was later purchased. Later printings of the Declaration of Independence have good value, but clearly the non-signed Dunlaps carry the best value.

John Dunlap was born in Ireland in 1747. Apprenticed to his uncle, William Dunlap, a well-established printer in Philadelphia, John moved to that city at age 10. In 1766, John took over his uncle’s business. He was friendly with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration. Contracted by the Continental Congress to print the Declaration, Dunlap did not put his printer’s seal upon the copies, probably for security reasons.

There are twenty-five copies of the Dunlap document known to exist. Only four of the twenty-five known copies are in private hands; most are held by institutions. Where are the other 175? Are there other copies of the Dunlap printings out there? How about the 1823 printing? Probably. So, keep a sharp eye out when you go tagging and when you visit flea markets and thrift stores!

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