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A Bill of Rights, looted long ago, is stolen back

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Though he's known for his work as a bookish appraiser on PBS's "Antiques Roadshow," Wayne Pratt hardly needs to moonlight: In his day job, he's one of New England's most successful antique dealers.

But not long ago, Mr. Pratt - a tall, quiet, slightly balding man with an affinity for heirloom furniture and toys - strayed from his specialty and picked up a long-lost original Bill of Rights, signed by John and Samuel Adams. The document was a perfect match to one stolen from North Carolina's Capitol during Gen. William Sherman's march in 1865. Pratt then made what authorities say was a bad decision: He tried to profit from the public's edicts and the signatures of famous men.

In a sting operation last month, an FBI special agent posing as a Philadelphia philanthropist with a fake $4 million check persuaded Pratt to sell the Bill. Couriered to Philadelphia, the Bill was seized and squirreled home for the first time in 138 years, to a secure hiding place.

The sting is one of the biggest in US history, collaring what archivists here call a "holy relic" - which, if genuine, would be the last of what were once five missing Bills. The controversy probes the fine line between public and private property, and the question of whether Pratt broke the law when he tried to sell the original American edicts. Now, he's at the center of what could be a criminal investigation - and a case to chill the lucrative, oft-mys-terious trade in Colonial charters and famous John Hancocks.

"This may ... affect our industry from the standpoint of the validity of providence and whether we can count on it in the future," says Jim Tucker, director of the Antiques and Collectibles Dealer Association in Cornelius, N.C.

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