In his 45 years as a real estate broker, James J. Reis has developed a keen eye for undervalued treasures.
Not the bricks-and-mortar variety, but paper: yellowed, wrinkled, torn, stained, and steeped in so much American history that a single sheet might bring thousands at auction.
Reis, 73, is a collector extraordinaire of old local deeds, having amassed a trove of 2,000 documents in which every neighborhood in Philadelphia, every township in the Pennsylvania suburbs and South Jersey is represented. But the collection's value doesn't lie in its size so much as the famed names and places that pop up in it.
There is a deed, on parchment, to George Washington's presidential mansion on Market Street near Sixth, and one to the house a block west where a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. There are deeds dotted with flattened red circles of stamped wax, the old-school way to seal a deal. There are deeds to grassy tracts with rocks and oak trees and, if the buyer was lucky, a clean stream. But depending on what those lands eventually became, and under whose ownership, seemingly mundane conveyances unfold into rich stories of a developing nation.
Reis, of Ambler, began collecting seriously in the late 1980s, when "all of a sudden, I started making money" in real estate, he said. "I always wanted a weird or unusual hobby."
He bought from manuscript dealers and in bulk at auctions, spending $6,000 in a single day at Freeman's. He scoured old bookstores, at one point picking up a collection stacked in boxes floor-to-ceiling at a West Chester shop. The deeds, plus sundry historic papers he found along the way, were an investment. But Reis was undeniably drawn to the characters living in them, and researched their names at the library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
"What these represent," he said of the deeds, "is priceless."
Yet, they do indeed have a price. After devoting decades to the collection, Reis has decided to sell. It's the same old story: He's getting up in years. His kids aren't interested.
"I'm at a point, he said, "where I gotta get rid of them."
On a recent July day, Reis laid out two pieces of priceless parchment for inspection.
"National," he said, holding up an index finger and pausing for dramatic effect. "National significance."
The two deeds belonged to the original White House, which was in Philadelphia when the city served as the new nation's first capital.
In May 1772, 36-year-old Richard Penn, grandson of William Penn, married 16-year-old Mary "Polly" Masters. Her mother gave them a 5-year-old, 3½-story brick mansion at the corner of present-day Sixth and Market Streets — just in time for the young Penn, a British loyalist, to return to London in the summer of 1775. The Revolution ensued, and over the course of the conflict, the home saw many tenants, including traitor Benedict Arnold during the British occupation of Philadelphia.
In 1785, Penn sold the property through a lawyer to Robert Morris, the father of the United States financial system, who renovated and expanded the house and then leased it to George Washington. It served as Washington's executive mansion from 1790 to 1797, and was also occupied by John Adams until he moved into the current presidential digs in Washington in 1800.
Reis' two documents include the mother's surrender of the deed and the receipt for the "deed of the gift" to the newly married couple, both dated 1775.
Another gem leads to Thomas Jefferson — at least the red-brick home where he ensconced himself in two rented second-floor rooms in June 1776 to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Graff House, as it is now known, was first built in 1775 by bricklayer Jacob Graff (it was torn down but later rebuilt). He owned the structure, but the Physick family owned the tract and charged Graff a ground rent.
The land deed, dated 1804, is a conveyance of the ground rent to another Physick family member, who then collected the 85 1/3 Spanish dollars from subsequent building owners. The parchment was signed by Philip Syng Physick, often called the father of American surgery.
Reis also has a 1774 deed signed by a Continental Congress delegate conveying a swath of land that would eventually be occupied by the Philadelphia International Airport.
Among his other finds: a pro-Lincoln silk ribbon from the election of 1864; a colonial IOU note from Indian-fighter brothers; a bill of sale for the 125-acre farm that is now part of Valley Forge National Historical Park, and — perhaps his favorite acquisition — letters written by the colonial financier Morris to his children about his ascent to wealth and descent into debtor's prison.
Just how much can a deed fetch?
Reis says he has had some interest, mostly from academics and universities, genealogical societies and religious groups, but he scoffs at many of the offers. He claims to have sold one deed to a Quaker group for more than $10,000.
In 2012, Freeman's auction house in Center City sold a land patent, dated March 6, 1788, for 400 acres in Washington County. It was signed over to Revolutionary War hero Peter Muhlenberg, at the time the vice president of the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, of which Benjamin Franklin was president.
Darren Winston, head of the Books, Maps & Manuscripts Department at Freeman's, said the value in otherwise run-of-the-mill deeds lies in the signatures.
"The value here, first and foremost, is Franklin," Winston said, "but that fact that it was Muhlenberg makes it a double-whammy."
The deed sold at auction for $12,000.
"You can drill down and look up what they were both doing at the time, what their council was doing," Winston said. "That's the historical part that's fun. Even if it's a nobody, it's fun."
Another document bearing Franklin's signature, a real estate indenture from May 1763, sold for $5,000 in 2004.
"People go and buy a box of 100 [deeds] with the hope of snagging someone as great as Franklin, and those people are often rewarded because there's a wealth of material," he said. " If you know what you're looking for, you can never stop collecting. And that's just Philadelphia."
Most deeds are printed on vellum, a fine parchment made from the skin of a calf or baby goat.
"It's kind of indestructible," Winston said.
But, as Reis learned, not waterproof.
Reis was working in the real estate trust department at the former Girard Bank in the late 1980s when his boss, an elderly Jewish man, took a liking to the Irishman from Hunting Park. One day, he gave Reis a well-preserved real estate deed from 1850. Reis took it home and began tearing through encyclopedias in a vain attempt to piece together the story behind a Philadelphia man's deed to land in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Years later, after moving his business from Horsham to Ambler, he randomly decided to take the deed out of its frame.
"Every now and then, the building would flood," he said. "I had all of these documents on the floor, went to the Shore, and when I came back, they were soaked."
Among the 20 ruined were a few dating to the 1600s.
"I threw many of them out. I should have kept the Russian one," he said.
"The worst is, I didn't realize what it was until afterward," when Reis was watching a TV special about an innovative railroad system first laid out in St. Petersburg, Russia, by a Philadelphia engineer. That man's name had been on the discarded deed.