Curiosity got the better of Christine Ridout a year ago when she browsed through an estate sale at a Buffalo home and spotted the gray cardboard glove box on a kitchen table.
Inside were six fragile, tattered documents. The timeworn parchment and graceful handwriting were eye-catching.
"I asked, `How much?' and was told three dollars, so I said, `OK, I'll take them,''' said Ridout, 52, a veteran bargain-hunter who hit more than dozen yard sales that day. "I had no sense of their history or value.''
Taking a closer look later, though, the Toronto-area resident was stunned to learn that one of them - from 1771 - was signed by William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin and last colonial governor of New Jersey. Another from 1710 was marked with an elaborate British royal seal of the Court of St. James in Britain.
This summer, Ridout was again surprised, this time to discover that the documents - which she hoped to sell for a lot more than $3 - were being sought by the State of New Jersey.
At least five of the six pages appear to be "missing or alienated'' and their theft reported to the New Jersey State Police and FBI.
"I thought I hit the jackpot; I was all excited, like I had a winning lottery ticket,'' Ridout told the Philadelphia Inquirer. ``Never in my lifetime would I have expected to come across anything like this.
"Then, I looked at the State of New Jersey website and felt like I was holding a lottery ticket that had expired,'' she said.
Officials, including Joseph Klett, chief of the state archives, declined to comment on the documents, directing inquiries to the state archive's website.
Dozens of documents - many of them focusing on legislative measures - are listed there, though "postings are not intended to necessarily represent the entirety . . . missing from specific record groups.''
The Division of Archives and Records Management "is empowered to demand and receive from any person any public record in private possession belonging to this State, or to any county, municipality or school district thereof,'' the website says.
"That's my kind of luck,'' said Ridout. "I thought (the discovery of the 18th-century materials) really knocked it out of the park. But the State of New Jersey says, `It belongs to us,''' said Ridout.''
An item similar to the document in her collection signed by Franklin sold at auction in 1995 for $1,359 - even though it had crude tape repairs. The value of such memorabilia has likely increased since then, experts say.
"These pieces give a glimpse into the relationship between England and her colonies, in this case specifically New Jersey,'' said Nathan Raab, vice president of the Raab Collection, an Ardmore-based firm that specializes in American and presidential historical documents, and a contributor to Forbes.com, where he writes the blog Historically Speaking. "If they are original, they are significant documents for this reason."
"However, compared with the number of people who collect Revolutionary War material, for example, the market for colonial New Jersey material is not as broad,'' he said. "Moreover, since these were acts passed annually, they would not be unique."
"Setting these documents aside, pieces signed by William Franklin are generally not particularly valuable, ranging from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars,'' Raab said. "This is primarily because to the general public William is famous only for being Benjamin Franklin's son.''
One of Ridout's documents, marked with the royal seal, gave the British Crown's approval of "An Act for ascertaining the Place of the Sitting of the Representatives to meet in General Assembly.''
Other pages approved funds for ``Doctor Benjamin Franklin Agent of this Colony at the Rate of One Hundred pounds per anum,'' and for his ``Excellency William Franklin Esquire at the rate of Sixty pounds per Annum Money aforesaid for House Rent during the Continuance of this Act, provided he makes Perth Amboy or Burlington the Place of his Residence.''
State officials asked Ridout to mail the documents to the archives where they could be authenticated. Ridout has already emailed images of the papers and said officials told her "they appear to be the real McCoy.''
"I want to do the right thing,'' she said. "But I don't want to mail the documents. I don't trust the mail.''
Ridout hopes to be compensated in some way for recovering the historic papers, and possibly personally bring them to New Jersey at the state's expense.
The state may "exercise its discretion in negotiating mutually beneficial terms for the return of such documents and/or the formal acknowledgment of their legal ownership by the State,'' the website says.
The sellers of the papers "said anything they didn't sell was going to be given to the Goodwill or thrown in the garbage,'' Ridout said. "I believe I saved the documents.''