George Washington letter returned to Mass. archives

BOSTON — A letter signed by Gen. George Washington is back in the hands of state archivists, six decades after it disappeared from the Massachusetts State House. The letter, dated April 14, 1783, asked the states to settle their financial accounts with the army before it was disbanded following the war. It is one of five copies Washington issued for delivery to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

In the 1940s, official documents in Massachusetts were open to the public inside the State House. Dozens of historic papers vanished before the archives were moved to Dorchester, and state employees now regularly watch the Internet and auction catalogs for missing documents to reappear.

A staff member at the Massachusetts Historical Commission spotted the Washington letter, which is valued at $60,000 to $80,000, in a February auction catalog. The letter was among 750 items that were scheduled to be auctioned by Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas. The consignor apparently purchased the letter 50 years ago from a now-closed Boston bookshop, said Tom Slater, director of Americana for Heritage.

Alan Cote, an official in Massachusetts’ Office of Public Records, called the Texas gallery two days before the Feb. 21 auction to ask that the letter be withdrawn from the sale. State officials said they had no reason to believe the consignor knew the letter had been taken from the state archives and do not plan legal action.

“No one conceded (the letter) was stolen,’’ Slater told Antique Trader. “There was an arrangement made whereby it would go to the State of Massachusetts, and it was withdrawn (from the auction).”

The issue of purloined documents has caused historians to take a closer look at their archives to determine if alterations have been made to important papers after they are recovered. In the case of the Washington letters, each of the five had a state designation written on the bottom margin of the document. Massachusetts Historical Commission staffers noted that the bottom of that state’s letter had been trimmed off to hide its origin.

— Mark Moran, Associated Press contributed