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

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Fourteen Bills of Rights were produced by the First Federal Congress, and George Washington posted them to the 13 soon-to-be states for ratification. Eventually, three went missing and two were burned, but North Carolina's has had the most intriguing adventure. Stolen by an Ohio infantryman when Sherman's troops sacked Raleigh in 1865, it resurfaced twice - in 1897, when news reports placed it on the Indianapolis office wall of Charles Shotwell, who bought it for $5, and again in 1925, when a Pennsylvania dealer contacted North Carolina. Both times, the state rebuffed negotiations, saying it wouldn't pay for what belonged to the people. Now, the Bill may be worth $30 million.

"This is property belonging to a sovereign," insists Frank Whitney, the US attorney handling the case here in Raleigh.

Then the Bill disappeared for a lifetime - turning up 70 years later in 1995, when a proxy brought it tothe North Carolina Department of Archives and History. At that meeting, a threat was made: Buy it - or we sell it to the Middle East. Meanwhile, two missing copies found their ways to the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. "They were asking so much money, it was far beyond anything we could have paid," says Jeff Crow, a deputy state archivist who sat in on those talks.

Three years ago, two men and a woman, with two guards, brought a framed Bill to Charlene Bangs Bickford, director of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University. They were a shadowy bunch, she says - "no names, no phone numbers, no nothing."

After confirming its authenticity, the conservators wrung their hands about letting the manuscript out of the building. "It's absolutely priceless," says Bickford. But the First Federal Congress Project was reluctant to contact authorities - and risk driving the document further underground.

Finally, in March, the curator at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia called authorities: The Bill had resurfaced. The sting went down a few days later.

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