February 16, 1987 12:00 PM

John Pierce, now 60, was a 21-year-old photographer in Portsmouth, R.I. when he first saw the black-framed print of the Declaration of Independence hanging in the town clerk’s office. Gut instinct told the self-described history buff that the document was more than a dime-store replica. “Sure, John,” said his friends. “Sure.”

Undaunted, Pierce, who joined the police force in 1958 and became chief in 1969, appointed himself the document’s unofficial protector, telling each new town clerk, “Take good care of this. I think it’s for real.” Then two months ago, while walking past the newly painted office of the newly elected town clerk, Carol Zinno, Pierce spied a blank wall where his beloved Declaration used to be. Although he had retired in 1981, he launched an investigation and found the document behind a file cabinet. Prodded by the mishap, Pierce pursuaded Portsmouth officials to have the copy authenticated.

Forty-eight hours later, with the help of Robert Mathiesen, a Brown University professor, and James Thomson, a Newport rare-books dealer, the print was declared to be the real McCoy, or more accurately, a real Southwick. Solomon Southwick was a Rhode Island printer hired to make copies of the original Declaration for his state. He printed an estimated 40 copies—nine or 10 are known to survive—completing the job on July 13, 1776. Twenty-three earlier copies of the Declaration, including those on view in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, also exist.

According to Selby Kiffer, manuscript expert at Sotheby’s in New York, the Portsmouth print, which will be chemically preserved, could bring as much as $12,000 at auction—if the town wanted to sell it, which Portsmouth has no intention of doing. For Pierce vindication, after all these years, is remuneration enough. “I’m elated,” he says. “But I knew it all along.”

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