Home News Stories 2005 December The Case of the Stolen National Treasure
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The Case of the Stolen National Treasure

History for Sale
The Case of the Stolen National Treasure


North Carolina FBI Agents with recovered Bill of Rights
North Carolina FBI Agents with
recovered Bill of Rights

This was no Hollywood drama—it was the real thing.

Two years ago, our agents in Raleigh got an unexpected tip: two Connecticut antiques dealers were trying to sell the nonprofit National Constitution Center in Philadelphia a priceless piece of U.S. history—a supposedly original, hand-drafted Bill of Rights commissioned by President George Washington in 1789. Their asking price? A cool $4 million.

The document, the agents learned, was one of just 14 made shortly after Congress proposed the first ten amendments to the Constitution (President Washington kept one copy for the federal government and sent one to each of the 13 states by horseback for their review and ratification). The artifact for sale was actually North Carolina's copy—it had been stolen from the state capitol in 1865 by Union soldiers passing through Raleigh in pursuit of retreating Confederate forces and later sold to a family in Ohio.

Our agents had to act fast…and discreetly. The dealers had given the Constitution Center a short deadline to accept the deal and suggested there were interested buyers overseas. The dealers also hinted that they might destroy the document if law enforcement got involved.

After some research, our agents determined the document was probably authentic. They quickly secured a civil seizure warrant from a federal judge to claim the document. But how could we get our hands on it without jeopardizing its safety?

Our answer: set up a sting. An agent in Philadelphia, an art expert, posed undercover as a knowledgeable millionaire philanthropist offering to buy the document on behalf of the Constitution Center. At a meeting arranged by the center, the agent gave a broker a check for $4 million. The broker then called a courier, who arrived with the Bill of Rights in a cardboard box. Once the document was verified as real, the agent secured the Bill of Rights and other agents swept into the room, served the seizure order, and secured the treasure.

But who actually owned it? The document had surfaced for sale before, but North Carolina refused to buy it, arguing it was stolen property that rightfully belonged to the state and was not a spoil of war. With no legal precedent to back its claim, North Carolina was unable to get its treasure back. It wasn't until the 1970s that case law first established that public ownership of records can never be broken. This past August, a federal judge ruled that the document belongs to North Carolina, and it was presented to the state in a ceremony later that month.

For the FBI, solving any investigation is a pleasure. But the agents who worked the case said it was especially satisfying to restore this historic and precious document to its rightful owner…and along the way, to actually hold an original copy of the Bill of Rights in their hands. "It was like touching history," one agent said. And helping to make history, too.

Resources: FBI Art Theft website