State pursues collector

Last modified: 5/22/2011 12:00:00 AM
On Oct. 1, 2009, Gary Lea attended an estate sale in Spring Valley, Minn., and inadvertently plucked a piece of New Hampshire history from obscurity.

A longtime collector of coins and currency, Lea frequented the auction center hosting the sale, and he had spotted the engraved, legal-pad sized sheet of copper on display during the preview a week earlier.

The sheet was on a table with other items, unsheathed from protective glass casing, and at best, it looked to Lea like a forgery of something valuable.

But "even at that I thought it would be neat to have," he said. On the day of the auction, he outbid several others for the item, including a local scrap metal buyer interested in its copper value.

He later discovered that he had purchased a one-of-a-kind copper printing plate produced in 1775 at the request of New Hampshire's colonial Legislature, which had authorized the printing of money to help underwrite the Revolutionary War effort.

For Lea, who was "just amazed" that the plate had survived this many years, it was both a lucky and potentially lucrative find, expected to fetch a six-figure sum at a national auction in Boston last August.

But those plans came to an abrupt halt. On the morning of the sale, Lea got a letter from the New Hampshire Attorney General's office, instructing him to withdraw the plate from auction or risk facing legal action.

Now, a year and a half since its resurfacing, the plate sits locked in a safety deposit box in Minnesota while Lea and the attorney general's office wage a legal battle over ownership rights.

The state argues the plate is New Hampshire property that was improperly removed from the state at some point after 1775.

Lea argues there was nothing improper about how he purchased the plate, notes that New Hampshire wasn't a state until 1776 and says the state has no record of what happened to the item after 1775.

He sued the state days after calling off the August sale, asking the court to declare him the rightful owner.

That request turned into a legal argument over whether a Minnesota court could decide the case, and when the court ruled that it could, the state announced its intention to appeal the decision.

To Lea and his lawyer, Wisconsin attorney Bennett Myers, that action is the state "flexing its muscles for reasons we can't understand," Myers said.

Lea, a 59-year-old single father who works part time as a technology director for a school district, doesn't have the same financial resources as the state, and while he doesn't plan to back down, "I think New Hampshire should cut its losses and back off from this thing," Myers said. "How far can you really take a case when you've admitted you have no evidence?"

Assistant Attorney General Peter Roth said the state keeps its property in accordance with law, "and nothing that's been brought to our attention shows the state has ever disposed of it."

He said the state wants to reach a "friendly resolution" with Lea and has tried to settle the dispute with cash offers, which Lea has rejected.

"We're not trying to bully Mr. Lea at all," Roth said. "We understand Mr. Lea having found it, and feeling as though he ought to be rewarded for its value.

"But it's an important piece for the state's purposes," he said. "We think it properly belongs in New Hampshire."

 Tracing ownership

 

After the plate's rediscovery, initial speculation credited Paul Revere with its creation, since it was similar in style to plates the Boston patriot had engraved and printed that year in Massachusetts.

But a review of state records revealed that John Ward Gilman, a silversmith and fellow patriot from Exeter, had been commissioned by the colony to produce the plate, which printed notes in four denominations of shillings.

The notes were dated June 20, 1775, by Gilman's engraving. He spent weeks on the project, riding to Newburyport on horseback to get the copper plate before hauling a press back to Exeter with the help of a carriage.

"We found evidence that the state had actually paid him to do this," said Frank Mevers, the former state archivist, who studied the origins and ownership of the copper plate before retiring last year.

But Mevers was only able to trace its ownership "very generally," he said. The last time the plate was accounted for was in the 1850s, when Baltimore physician Joshua Cohen, an avid currency collector, used it for an unofficial reprinting.

The auction catalogue listing for the plate speculates that Cohen got the plate from John Tyler, the superintendent of the former New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane.

Tyler, who served as superintendent from 1852 to 1858, had also served as a state representative, and his "relationships with his former fellow legislators may have enabled him to obtain the plates," according to the listing.

Mevers said he thinks it's likely the plate was removed from the vaults of the state house.

"I suppose somebody knew somebody, and somebody knew where this thing was, and didn't see any harm in lending it," he said. "After all, it didn't have a lot of significance 150 years ago."

Mevers said he told the attorney general's office last summer about the plate and the impending auction. "My job to let them know that it exists, but the final disposition of it is certainly not up to me," he said.

He said the state has negotiated in the past to acquire ownership of historic items, including a copy of the Declaration of Independence discovered in the 1980s at what is now the American Independence Museum in Exeter.

The state reached an agreement to share ownership of the document, stopping it from being auctioned off in New York and keeping it on display in Exeter, Mevers said.

In that case, making a claim to the document was difficult, Mevers said. "We never could prove that it was one of the ones sent to the state, but they agreed that it probably was," Mevers said.

 Whose property?

 

In researching Lea's case against the state, Myers got in touch with Concord lawyer Chuck Douglas, whom he knew to have a particular interest in history.

The state has argued in court filings that the plate is a state record and became New Hampshire property when the colony became a state in 1776, but "there's no way that something that was owned by England automatically goes to New Hampshire," Douglas said.

In Douglas's opinion, it's just as likely that the colonial governor, John Wentworth, took the plate with him when he sailed back to England in the fall of 1775.

But Douglas also said he doesn't think that distinction matters. "If the Queen says they're hers, I take the same position," he said. "They've been in private ownership a long, long time. You can't just take someone's property because you suddenly decide you want it."

State Rep. Robert Rowe, an Amherst Republican who is the chairman of the state's joint legislative historic committee, said he respects personal property rights, and "I do believe that (Lea) purchased this in good faith."

But Rowe, whose committee has been working with the attorney general to reclaim the plate, said he doesn't think it's Lea's property.

"I think he knows that this is New Hampshire state property, that has never been sold to anyone," he said. "We honestly, sincerely believe we have always had a title to that. And still do."

To Myers, the situation raises questions about the culture of collecting, of antiques enthusiasts and history buffs sifting through items at yard and estate sales, hoping to someday stumble upon an important piece of the past.

"Are they all just working for one state government or another any time they succeed in what they're actually trying to do?" Myers said. "Are they then going to have to turn it over to a government agency, just because they really, really, really want it?"

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)




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