LOST RIGHTS: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic, by David Howard


Howard, David LOST RIGHTS: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York 2010) North Carolina History, Civil War, Confiscations and Contributions; North Carolina History, Lost Articles; North Carolina History, Theft of relics; U.S. History, Civil War, Confiscations and Contributions; Constitutional History, Proposed Original 12 Amendments; Manuscripts, Collectors and Collecting, U.S.; Annotated Sources List; Digital Editions are searchable. 345 pages.

BOOK REVIEW — April, 1865. Robert E. Lee surrenders at Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth fires a pistol ball into Lincoln's head, and General Sherman's army marches into the vanquished and shuttered city of Raleigh. Sometime amid that tumultuous stretch of days, an unknown infantryman rifles through the North Carolina Statehouse, hunting for Confederate mementos—but what he finds is no ordinary souvenir. He returns home with a touchstone of our Republic: one of the fourteen original copies of the Bill of Rights.

Lost Rights follows that document's epic passage over the course of 138 years, from the Indiana businessman who purchases the looted parchment for $5 to the antiques dealer who tries to peddle it more than a century later for $5,000,000. The parchment drifts from the living-room wall of a middle-class Midwestern family into the corruptible world of high-end antiquities before its journey ends with a dramatic FBI sting on the 32nd floor of a Philadelphia office tower. 

Part history, part detective story, part true-crime yarn, Lost Rights is a page-turner populated by unforgettable characters—the outrageous New England antique-furniture dealer, the real estate magnate seeking his next financial conquest, the folk-art expert who stows the iconic document under his bed, and the little-known historian who divines the parchment’s most important secret from a faded, barely legible, 200-year-old notation, among many others. And, of course, there is the broadsheet itself—priceless, yet ultimately worthless in the legitimate marketplace. For fans of The Billionaire’s Vinegar and The Lost Painting, Lost Rights is “a tour de force of antiquarian sleuthing.” (The above book review by Author Hampton Sides appears on Amazon.com sales screen-page for Lost Rights.)

Robert J. "Bobby" Higdon (BR)

The dramatic sting that culminated in the recovery of North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights occurred in a Philadelphia office tower. This 'sting' was run by an FBI task force that included with many other law enforcement agencies from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the United States. The initial organization of this 'sting' effort was handled by the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office for Eastern North Carolina under the leadership of Robert J. “Bobby” Higdon, Jr., at right.

Lost Rights is, also, an amazingly detailed review of the history of legal and political documents and social attitudes concerning document collection and preservation. For any genealogy researcher, this books goes way beyond “There was a fire” and “It was wartime” to explain why there are so many missing documents from the period of the early colonies up to the late 1800s (Additional text by Frank Mayfield, HFA Website).

This book is commercially available through most online booksellers (for about $9 new, $3 used). This book is available in a Kindle digital edition ($10), but is not free from an online archive.

Last update for this page:

Please email our web guy Frank Mayfield at frank@black-sweater-art.com to report any problems, errors, or other issues, that you come across on this website. Thanks.