22 Aug 2014
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Urban Archeologist: Famous Found Documents – Real or Fake?

Could this be the big “find” we've been waiting for...?

Urban Archeologist: Famous Found Documents – Real or Fake? Urban Archeologist: Famous Found Documents – Real or Fake? Urban Archeologist: Famous Found Documents – Real or Fake? Urban Archeologist: Famous Found Documents – Real or Fake? Urban Archeologist: Famous Found Documents – Real or Fake?


One always hears the story about the $10 tag sale oil painting that turns out to be the lost work of a great master. It's why we watch Antiques Roadshow, or any one of a number of reality series that feature the same kind of (often manufactured) drama. Does your garage or attic hide a fortune? Sudden wealth might be a nice problem to have, but I think there's another reason for the rise in popularity of these shows. The thrill of discovery! (No. not the channel.)

Over the weekend I found the big one. I was not feeling too hopeful while looking over a sale in Ridgefield. It is very common to visit an estate sale and feel like it has truly been picked over. This sale was already in such a neat and tidy condition that I felt sure I would walk away with nothing to write or blog.

At each sale I try to slow down and look carefully. Like any activity, if you rush you tend to make mistakes. As I surveyed one of the upstairs rooms I saw a tall wardrobe. Without climbing I was able to tip my camera over the top and snap an image. As you can see when I viewed the screen on the back of the camera I almost fainted (see image) — The Declaration of Independence! 

What did I do next? With the possibility of the most important find in (and of) history how could I just walk up to the cashier and say, “Umm, how much for the, umm, crinkled up piece of parchment?” Should I hide it in a box with a lot of other items and hope they won't notice? Steal it? Hide it and come back later?

After a quick accounting of my scruples I decided to announce my find to everyone in the house. I proudly showed it to the two women running the sale and they seemed to be shocked that they had missed something. After ogling it a few minutes later we all agreed what I had known all along... it was a careful yet common reproduction often sold at museum stores.

One dollar later I was the proud owner of America's most important document, or at least an interesting copy of it. The aging of paper, especially parchment is an old trick to fool inexperienced buyers.

I was still pleased that I had found something that no one had seen in maybe 35 years or more. There was enough dust on it to at least verify that assumption.

How do you spot a fake and keep your cash safe for the real thing? Look at the text, a copy will often soften the focus of a document. Ink color can be a good indication — fading usually occurs and some inks can change color completely over time. The paper is rarely this color and texture (though Hollywood would tell you different) and paper or parchment are often aged by soaking in tea and baking in a low temperature oven for crispness.

Here's a quick test. Tell me if these civil war era bills are real or fake.

Whether you are looking for the golden ticket or hoping to find something that was feared lost forever — there are plenty of opportunities each weekend. With a little patience and some long arms you may end up reaching for, and finding, both.

Greg Van Antwerp is a Brookfield resident and blogger, who can be found on the weekends in search of a good “dig” or a good story. You can read more about his adventures by visiting his blog.

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