"I had butterflies in my stomach and felt my legs get weak," Lingenfelter, 75, said, recalling the moment he knew he had discovered a very readable facsimile of the now barely legible Declaration of Independence.
But is it a copy of a copy, or a copy of the original? historians ask.
Lingenfelter, a Doylestown collector of rare historical documents and artifacts, has tentative plans to take his document on a national tour and would like to someday display it at the proposed Museum of the American Revolution at Third and Chestnut Streets. He also would entertain purchase offers.
The Declaration copy was exhibited at the Valley Forge National Historical Park Visitor Center on July 4, and at several other historical sites and museums in Pennsylvania and New York over the last few years.
"It always gets a great reception," Lingenfelter said. "People walk in like they were in a church - quiet, whispering, and very respectful.
"Some have cried," he said. "The original is a holy relic, the birth certificate for America, but, in a sense, my copy is more important because you can read it."
That truth is not self-evident to Karie Diethorn, chief curator of Independence National Historical Park. She said Lingenfelter's document - produced in 1846 by John Jay Smith, librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia - was likely copied from an 1823 engraving by William J. Stone, not the original Declaration.
"There's no proof that Smith was ever given access by the federal government to the original handwritten Declaration of Independence," she said. "But it would have been very easy for Smith to get a Stone facsimile."
Jim Green, librarian at the Library Company of Philadelphia, agrees. "There were a lot of different facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence produced by different processes, and many were copies of copies during the 19th century," Green said. "They're mostly rare, and, certainly, anastatic copies are as rare as any."
Lingenfelter remains convinced of his document's direct connection to the Declaration. He said Smith was highly respected and could have gotten access to the original. What's more, the Smith and Stone copies were different sizes. "There are things out there that we've never heard of before - and I've been educating people," he said.
After the original Declaration was issued, about 200 copies were quickly produced by printer John Dunlap on the night of July 4, 1776, to be posted and read aloud on July 5 as a way of alerting the citizenry, said Lingenfelter, president of Heritage Collectors' Society, a dealer in rare documents. "We were all in haste," Declaration signer John Adams later wrote.
One Dunlap copy - 26 are known to exist - was bought by TV producer Norman Lear for $8.1 million in 2000.
Decades after the 1776 broadsides, engraver William Stone was commissioned to make copies of the Declaration in advance of the nation's 50th anniversary. A chemical solution that dissolves ink was used to make a copperplate engraving directly from the handwritten vellum original, Diethorn said.
The 1823 copies are "absolutely perfect," the curator said. "Stone's facsimiles were the first true facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence, exact copies that are still the standard of accuracy."
Ten years after Stone's copies were made, Peter Force, historian, publisher, and mayor of Washington, received permission from the State Department to print 4,000 copies of the Declaration, using the Stone copperplate, on fine wove paper.
In the meantime, the original languished in a Washington patent office, exposed to damaging sunlight. It was showing its age in 1846 when John Jay Smith made his copy using the anastatic process, in which an acidic solution was applied to a document then pressed against a zinc plate, Lingenfelter said.
"That would have hastened the destruction of animal skin [vellum] with printing on it," Lingenfelter said. "Any moisture on animal skins affects the skin and ink."
The lingering question remains: Did Smith make his copy from the original or from a copy?
"He picked the most famous document in the United States to promote the anastatic process. It was a commercial venture," said Diethorn, who believes Smith used the more readily available Stone copy.
Lingenfelter, a former Army intelligence officer and unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, learned about the anastatic copying process through Irish historian and author Edward Law.
One copy turned up in an 1891 Philadelphia auction and is believed by Lingenfelter to be the one he eventually bought at the flea market. A catalog described its wood frame as being fashioned from Independence Hall staircase planks, replaced during an 18th-century renovation.
He had his "eureka moment" when his document was laid out seven years ago on a large table next to a more damaged Park Service copy, which had been torn in three pieces and repaired.
"We didn't know what we had," he said. "We thought we just had an old copy . . . but it was a mirror image of the original."
A third anastatic copy, believed to be authentic, sold in New York in June 2009 for $32,000 with the buyer's premium.
Looking back on his flea-market find a quarter-century ago, Lingenfelter said he "was just in the right place at the right time."
"Nobody else was going to buy that frame," he said. "If I didn't rescue it, it probably wouldn't exist today. It would have been thrown in the trash."
Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or email@example.com.