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$250 Book Had Bonus: Old Bill of Rights Copy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When antique dealer Gerald Bourdages purchased a dusty old book on Pennsylvania law from a Las Vegas book dealer in 1986 for $250, he wound up getting more than he bargained for.

While looking through the fragile, leather-bound book one day, the history buff discovered that the book--printed on June 14, 1791--was prefaced with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and an early version of the Bill of Rights.

The latter contained two additional amendments that weren’t included in the document ratified by the 13 original states 200 years ago today.

“I thought I was just buying law books, so when I discovered what I had, I could hardly contain myself,” Bourdages said of the book titled “The Act of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

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The first two amendments listed in the book concerned the division of seats in Congress and control over congressional salaries.

“Freedom of speech wound up being the First Amendment, because these two amendments failed to win the required approval from two-thirds of the states,” Bourdages said.

The Bill of Rights describes the fundamental liberties of Americans and forbids the government to violate those rights. Today’s anniversary of the historical document will be “just another day at the office” for Bourdages.

The 64-year-old Bourdages, of San Clemente, has traveled to dozens of schools throughout Southern California to display his prized possession and other historical artifacts he owns at special assemblies.

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“I want to get young people interested in history and the Bill of Rights, because it is a tremendously important document,” Bourdages said as he carefully turned the slightly torn pages of the frail book while wearing white gloves. “It is a document that teaches people things.”

Since purchasing the rare book--which he usually keeps locked up in a bank vault--Bourdages said he has spent about $20,000 tracing its authenticity.

His extensive research has revealed that 200 copies of the book were printed and that only his and three other copies--which are kept at the Library Company of Philadelphia--are known to exist.

The library, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, is the oldest U.S. library.

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Bourdages estimates that his book may be worth up to $2 million because of its rarity. He bases the estimate on other sales of historical documents, such as the purchase of an original copy of the Declaration of Independence in New York City earlier this year for $2.4 million.

“Nobody can put an exact appraisal on it because it has never been sold,” Bourdages said. “But based on what other documents of this type are selling for, I think that’s a reasonable estimate.”

But William Reese, a professional appraiser of such documents, is among a handful of experts who said that the book, while rare, is probably not worth much more than what Bourdages paid for it.

“I’d be surprised if it’s worth $500,” said Reese, who runs the William Reese Co. in New Haven, Conn., a firm which deals with rare books and manuscripts and rare pieces of American history.

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“No printed piece of Americana, except for the last original copy of the Declaration of Independence, has sold for that kind of money,” Reese said. “A lot of people think that because they have a book that is over 200 years old, that it is worth a lot of money.”

Bourdages said money is not his main motivation or pleasure in owning the book.

“I want to make people aware that there is American history and it doesn’t have to be in the Library of Congress,” he said. “The importance is the historical significance of the document. That’s far, far more important than what it’s worth.

“It’s incredible how 200 years ago, a group of men sat down and wrote rules and regulations that still apply today,” he said. “That document is the pride of this country that everyone in the world wants to copy because it has worked for so long.”

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