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State division of archives suing Burlington auction company

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At stake: a document signed by one of three N.C. signers of Declaration of Independence

The North Carolina division of archives is suing to force an auction company in Burlington, Raynor’s Historical Collectible Auctions, to turn over an original document signed in 1772 by William Hooper, one of three North Carolinians who signed the Declaration of Independence.

An attorney by trade, Hooper served in the General Assembly and later as one of North Carolina’s three delegates to the Continental Congress from 1774 until 1777. He is buried in Hillsborough’s old town cemetery, as noted on a state historical marker that stands along that town’s main drag, South Churton Street.

The court file lists the address for Raynor’s Historical Collectible Auctions as 1687 West Buckhill Road, Burlington and gives the same address for its registered agent, Robert Raynor.

The lawsuit – formally termed an ex parte petition for seizure and a petition for return of a public record – has been filed in Alamance County superior court.

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The state archives division is seeking a court order to force the return of what is described as “an original, loose civil action paper” that Hooper sent to the Rowan County coroner on September 5, 1772.

The petitioners, D. Reid Wilson, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, and Sarah E. Koonts, director of the state Division of Archives and Records, believe that the document may have been sold an auction late last month, according to the court file. The document, identified as “Lot #20: North Carolina Declaration Signer,” is described as an official public record bearing Hooper’s signature.

Apparently incorrectly described as having been written September 5, 1773, the letter stated: “To the Coroner of Rowan County, Greeting. We command you as before that you take the body of John Oliphant it to be found in your Bailwick & him safely keep so that you have him before our Chief Justice…at the Court-House in Salisbury on the 5th day of Mar. next, then and there to satisfy Richard Farr the Sum of seven pounds twelve shillings & eleven pence…” On the second page, “Francis Lock, the Coroner, has noted and signed, ‘not found per me.’”

The letter, signed “W. Hooper” and folded for filing, listed the names of the plaintiff and defendant, along with the place and date, and has light bright stains, “but the writing is dark and clear,” and “brown at folds,” based on a description of the document included in the petition.

The state archives division is responsible for the permanent preservation of “records of all current and defunct counties, state agencies, and government offices in the state,” the petition states. “Records documenting historical court activities, including Colonial era civil and criminal actions and court documents, are maintained in local custody until they are legally transferred to the State Archives for permanent retention.”

Normally, the document would’ve been transferred from the Rowan County clerk of court’s office to the state archives division for permanent preservation, as all public records have been for decades, the petition states.

The document that Hooper had sent the Rowan County coroner in September 1772 should’ve been part of a routine records transfer, “but for its unauthorized alienation,” and included in bound court volumes for the period between 1755 and 1797, the petition states.

The state archivists fear the original document could be taken out of state, disposed, destroyed, or permanently damaged, absent a court order directing its seizure and return to the proper legal custodians.

A special deputy attorney general for the N.C. Department of Justice filed an ex parte (emergency) petition for seizure and a petition for the return of an official public record in Alamance County civil superior court two weeks ago.

The court file gives no indication that a summons has been served on Raynor’s Historical Collectible Auctions or Robert Raynor, who is listed as the company’s registered agent; and no response had been filed by press time.

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