SPRING VALLEY, Minn. (AP) — It was a plate among plates. At a viewing for an estate sale in Spring Valley, Minn., an aging copper printing plate sat next to dishes and saucers. It looked out of place, but hey, it was a plate and these other dishes were plates, too.
Most people were there to look at the coins of a man whose estate was about to be divvied up.
One collector — southeast Minnesota resident Gary Lea — stopped and picked up the plate, about the size of a sheet of paper.
Under decades of grime, he could still see the engraving — backwards, as printing plates are — and could make out that it must have been used to make money.
He thought the date said 177- — seventeen-seventy something.
Back home after the viewing, he combed through a book, “Early American Currency.” In a section about New Hampshire he found what he was looking for: A black-and-white photograph of currency that matched the plate he’d seen.
The description of the currency stated, without fanfare, that money created from the plate had been used to finance the “Live Free or Die” state’s part in the Revolutionary War.
Also, it said, most historians agreed the plate was likely engraved by Paul Revere.
The next week at the estate sale, the same plate rested near the same dishes.
No special pricing. No reserve. Not even a pricetag.
Chances were, Lea thought, the plate wasn’t real.
Most printing plates hadn’t survived because they were usually reused and re-engraved.
A replica could still fetch a respectable price, but wouldn’t be as coveted. A forgery could bring less.
Also, there were plenty of coin collectors at the auction. Surely they knew what a copper plate etched by Paul Revere looked like.
Lea would have to devise his strategy on the fly.
The bidding for coins began. It was heavy.
“They were going for a lot more than what some of them were worth in my estimation,” Lea said.
That meant the plate would probably go high.
The plate came to auction.
Lea and just two other bidders raised hands.
One bidder — a scrap iron collector — quickly dropped out.
The second continued for a while against Lea, then dropped, too.
Lea owned the plate, for a price he declined to name for this story.
He would soon discover the battle to own it was nothing compared to the battle to sell it.
Most collectors, garage-sale junkies and auction hounds live to find that one document squirreled away in a painting of dogs playing poker.
“Antiques Roadshow” has sent an entire generation of snoops and treasure hunters to the attic.
Amid that fervor, Lea did the impossible: He found a plate that may have been handled by Paul Revere.
His euphoria over buying the plate was immediately followed by the urge to get rid of it — so to speak.
“I knew I couldn’t afford to keep it,” Lea said. “I was happy just to have known that I was the owner of it at one time, and part of its rediscovery.”
Lea did some research and placed a few calls. Soon, Heritage Auctions agreed to sell the plate.
Most items in the house’s auction catalogues were described by several sentences, maybe a paragraph.
The copper plate had four pages.
The description included a discovery by New Hampshire’s head archivist Frank Mevers that the plate was likely not engraved by Revere, but by one of New Hampshire’s native sons.
Lea had also discovered other information about the plate.
The last time it was documented in New Hampshire was 1775, when the state was still a colony.
The last time it was documented outside the state was 10 years before the Civil War, when Dr. Joshua Cohen, a prominent Baltimore physician, owned it. From 1828 to 1865, Cohen collected more than 2,700 “specimens” of Colonial currency.
In 1930, Cohen’s estate sold for less than $9,000. Most coins and currency went to the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.
But the plate wasn’t recorded there, either by error or because it had fallen out of the collection sometime previously.
However, in the 1850s, Cohen had made an unauthorized reprinting of the New Hampshire currency, using the original plate.
He slightly modified the plate. For example, “the vignette within the forty shilling engraving has several extra branches added to the tree trunks,” one expert said. “It is apparent that the re-engravings on all four vignettes were cut with a heavier touch than the hand that created the original engravings.”
The reprintings Cohen made helped Lea determine, more than a century later, that he’d found the original plate at an estate sale in far southern Minnesota — 1,324 miles from Concord.
When Lea compared his plate with the 1850s reprints, it matched.
“Even the scratches lined up,” Lea said.
The auction was set for Boston on Aug. 11, 2010. The plate’s starting bid was $50,000, though some thought it could easily fetch six digits.
Then New Hampshire called.
It wanted its plate back.
The New Hampshire State Attorney General’s Office intervened the morning of the sale, requesting that Heritage Auctions withdraw the plate or immediately face a court order blocking its sale.
New Hampshire’s attorney argued that since there was no record of the plate every being declared excess property, it must have been taken at “some unknown time” by some “unknown persons.”
Concerned that a legal threat would scare away potential buyers, Lea cancelled the sale.
His decision surprised the auction house.
“He had good title as we saw it and nothing was wrong,” said Richard Brainerd, general counsel for Heritage Auctions. “No due diligence would have suggested he didn’t have a right to hold it.”
Attorneys from New Hampshire disagreed, saying that “a presumption should arise that the plate remains State property.”
Lea knew a threat now hung over the plate. If he tried to auction it again in the future, anyone who bought it was likely also buying a lawsuit.
He knew he could hold onto the plate — even will it to family members.
But New Hampshire wasn’t going to forget about a plate it hadn’t remembered for 236 years.
It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
Lea decided the only way to be declared the plate’s rightful owner was to use the same legal system that blocked him from selling.
He hired an attorney and took the state of New Hampshire to court — in Fillmore County, Minn.
Lea’s move created several intriguing legal questions.
For example: Can you sue one state in a different state? Can a state demand the return of items it claims are part of its heritage and treasury?
And which court gets the final say about a plate that was created in New Hampshire, traveled to Maryland, was found in Minnesota — possibly by way of Michigan — and then shipped to Boston for auction?
Attorneys for New Hampshire argue that since their state inventoried books and other common furniture before selling them, it made no sense that a plate, which played an integral part in the Revolutionary War, was tossed out without so much as a note.
But the attorneys have also admitted that the last time the state knew it had the plate in its possession was 1775.
New Hampshire “was unable to find legislative action” that shows the plate was properly sold, said Assistant Attorney General Peter Roth, but so far, it has stopped short of saying the plate was stolen.
“Those aren’t allegations I’m prepared to make,” Roth said. “That’s the kind of evidence that if we go to trial would be developed and investigated in the process of discovery.”
Roth said he believes the plate ended up in the hands of Cohen — who was known to pay people for Colonial currency — through any number of contacts or methods.
New Hampshire has also argued that Minnesota is the wrong court to decide the plate’s ownership. But Fillmore County Judge Robert Benson ruled March 23 that Minnesota had jurisdiction to decide the rightful owner of the plate.
Lea’s attorney, Bennett Myers, has asked the court to make Lea the “sole and proper” owner of the plate and “extinguish” any ownership claim by a third party.
The court has almost 90 days left to make a decision that will determine who rightfully owns the plate.
There’s that old cliche that possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Brainerd, Heritage Auctions’ general counsel, chuckled when recounting it.
As the third-largest auction company in the United States, Heritage has sold lots of old things — including currency — that originally came from states but through sale or abandonment fell into the hands of private collectors.
Brainerd said that for years local, state and even federal officials have found little use for yellowing documents. When storage becomes problematic, or when governments no longer need to legally keep them, they throw them or give them away.
This provides a large market for the auction houses, antiquarian dealers, booksellers and history buffs who literally buy up America’s discarded history.
But new legislation proposed or passed in a number of states threatens private ownership of those items.
Texas recently passed a law that gives it ownership to any state item it didn’t voluntarily discard or sell.
And a number of East Coast states have adopted or considered language that “reclaims” government artifacts from the Colonial period.
Unfortunately, the laws are so new that virtually no cases have tested them, Brainerd said. That means there’s no case law, advising attorneys or judges to assist Lea’s — or anyone else’s — claim to goods once owned by the state.
If those laws stand, Brainerd said, every rare treasure discovered at an auction or garage sale could be susceptible to a lawsuit.
But that, he said, isn’t the most important point.
“Depriving a citizen of personal property without process, well, that’s something that is reprehensible to Americans,” he said.
Gary Lea’s only hope is to win the legal battle he began.
For now, the state of New Hampshire enjoys an advantage he doesn’t — a taxpayer-provided bankroll that will fund the fight as long as the attorney general wants.
Lea has lawyers and bills to pay.
Without a ruling from the court, the ownership issue won’t be settled and the market value of the plate would be damaged, Lea’s attorney Myers said.
“Doing nothing is a win for New Hampshire by default,” he said.
Experts disagree about who engraved the plate.
They can’t say for sure when it was even in New Hampshire last.
Who knows how it found its way to Cohen.
Heaven only knows how it wound up on an auction table in Fillmore County, lying among sets of dishes.
There appears to be only one thing everyone agrees about.
“This is a national treasure,” Lea said.
By DARRELL EHRLICK
Winona Daily News
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