Behind a Discovery: Benjamin Franklin in Paris, 1777

In his book, The Hunt for History, Nathan Raab tells a riveting tale of researching, authenticating, and selling a remarkable historical document signed by Benjamin Franklin in Paris in 1777. Now, after many years in a private collection, we have reacquired the document, offering the perfect occasion to revisit this ‘story from the hunt.’

It was about 15 years ago when someone approached The Raab Collection, ready to sell a signed Benjamin Franklin document. It was an important one, from Passy in Paris, related to the war effort. As part of his typical pre-purchase research, Nathan set off for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) to compare the document to the HSP’s extensive collection of Franklin manuscripts. But it ended up being quite an anxiety-inducing afternoon. 

When the archivist delivered the material, Nathan was stunned to find a copy of the original that he had, at that moment, in his bag. He writes, “The copy was complete with the same folding creases and the same small smudge in the center-right portion of the letter as the one I was carrying. And now the worrisome part: the clear implication was that the society owned the original, which would be unfortunate for me.”

He continues, “I gulped, concerned about the situation I found myself in. I was on the Board of Directors of this organization, which made it all the more potentially embarrassing. How could they have a copy of this letter and I have the original? There was no record of any sale. For forty-five minutes I sat there wrapping my head around the possibility that the original may have been stolen from this folder, and there I was holding it.”

Benjamin Franklin signed document 1777

Nathan then noticed a small annotation behind the copy that makes reference to the minutes of a HSP Board meeting. He requested the minutes from the archivist and waited, wondering how it would all get resolved. But then, another surprise: the minutes indicated that the Board had agreed, back in the 1970s, to give the original of this document to a longtime supporter. Acknowledging the unusual arrangement, the Board qualified the move by saying it would not set a precedent. 

After some time, the original made its way into the hands of a collector, and from there to us, then to another collector and now back again. Now we have the opportunity to find the next great steward of this important historical document. 

The Hunt for History

To read more about Nathan’s experiences in historical sleuthing, The Hunt for History, is available wherever books are sold, and be sure to check out our “Stories” page for his most recent stories from the hunt. 

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