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American narrative preserved

Historic Constitution prints found in Kingston

KINGSTON – About a year and a half ago, Ken Foss and some business associates began tearing into old wooden crates left long ago by former tenants at their warehouse in Kingston.

Foss, of Byron, and his associates were driven by curiosity. The men knew that the crates held fragile printing materials, but they had no idea what kind of connection to U.S. history they were about to uncover.

"Once we got into the crates and started opening them, we didn't understand or really know the extent of what we had," Foss said.

They began pulling out metal press plates, giant lithographic prints and glass photo negatives and positives that revealed images of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Foss contacted a forensic authenticator only to be turned away because the proof – the prints and the plates that made them as well as stacks of Czech-born master lithographer Theodore Ohman's other work – was evident in piles all around him.

Now the men are trying to find a home for the historic collection of Ohman's handicraft. They believe Ohman's humble and painstaking appreciation for this nation's founding documents should be on displayn for all to see and appreciate.

"So many people today don't even know what the Constitution is anymore, or when [Constitution Day] even is," said Jeff Johnson, one of the collection's co-owners. "I'm not a history buff, but it's just a relevant item."

Foss and Johnson are among four owners of the collection, which dates to the 1940s and ’50s. The collection first was bought along with some DeKalb real estate more than a decade ago, but has since been moved by Foss, Johnson and the original owners, who knew little of the collection's exact contents.

Ohman learned the lithographic printing process from his grandfather as a boy, and became fascinated with capturing and preserving the original look of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence after coming to the U.S., according to literature written by Walter Mahan, which accompanies the collection.

He employed a complicated and painstaking process to create what was considered to be the truest replica of the Constitution. In 1953, he printed thousands of copies on his four-step printing press in Memphis, Tenn. Some of his prints have been displayed at the National Archives, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

"What Ohman created is a pretty amazing thing considering the time he was doing this," said Mark Moran, an antiques appraiser who viewed the collection. "For them to have stumbled across this amazing archive is one of the things that people interested in historic Americana dream about."

About 11,000 prints of the Constitution and 100 prints of the Declaration of Independence, along with the original printing plates and glass photo negatives and positives that produced them, somehow made it to Illinois in the 1970s. The owners aren't exactly sure why or how.

"There are a lot of questions," Foss said.

One of the Declaration prints has sold online for $650, but Moran believes that the Constitution prints could go for more – in part because of their size, which at 2 feet, 4 3/4 inches by 23 5/8 inches is identical to that of the original document. He couldn't give an appraisal figure for any of the rest of the collection, because it is such a unique find, he said.

"Clearly there is collector interest out there," Moran said. "The trick is not to saturate the market with these. They have to be carefully taken care of and sold to people who will really appreciate them."

Some of the collection had been on display at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wis., but now it's all back together – along with several other still-unopened crates from Ohman's estate.

Foss said the owners haven't had the time to go through everything yet, but they're focused on getting the historic materials into a safe place.

"We want this to be in a museum somewhere," Foss said. "We want someone to take this and appreciate it for what it is."

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