Rare Prints of America’s Founding Documents Could Make $8 Million at Auction

The sale includes contemporary copies of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Courtesy Sotheby's.

In an unprecedented standalone live sale, Sotheby’s New York will offer rare contemporary printings of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights on June 26. The sale comes just days before America’s independence is celebrated on the Fourth of July.

The Declaration is tagged at up to $5 million, the Bill of Rights at up to $2 million, and the Constitution at up to $1 million. The Declaration of Independence is one of just five surviving copies, said the house, dating from within one week of the first printing. The copy of the Bill of Rights only recently came to light; the house said it’s likely the only surviving copy of an edition of 100 that was printed for Pennsylvania’s legislators. A copy of the Constitution, meanwhile, hasn’t come to auction in some 35 years. Another rare document will join the trio: the ratification of the Constitution by Rhode Island, the last state to join the Union, estimated to fetch up to $600,000. 

They’ll all go on public view at Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters June 21–25.

An antique copy of the U.S. Constitution in a contemporary newspaper

Courtesy Sotheby’s.

“It is always exciting to be able to hold and read the words of our nation’s founding documents in the very same formats and printings as they first appeared to the earliest Americans,” said Selby Kiffer, international senior specialist in the books and manuscripts department. “To have the opportunity to do this successively with the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights is both thrilling and humbling.”

Each printing has a colorful history in its own right. Among them, they trace the founding of what would become a powerful nation from July 1776 to March 1790. 

The Declaration of Independence appeared in the July 11, 1776 edition of the New-York Journal; or, the General Advertiser, taking up the entirety of the third page. The publisher urged buyers to separate it from the newspaper and hang it on their walls, which, in Sotheby’s view, may help to explain its rarity. 

The Constitution, which bound the colonies together, was printed in an edition of 500 in September 1787; the publishers of the Pennsylvania Packet and the Daily Advertiser devoted all four pages of an issue to the document, with a distinctive larger type for the preamble. This copy is being offered by a New England educational institution, per the house, which sold one of the 14 surviving copies of a slightly earlier edition for a record $43.2 million in November 2021.

The Bill of Rights exists in just three broadside editions, including this one, evidently unique according to the house, and the only one that was an official government printing. It comes from the collection of historian/author J. Robert Maguire.

Other copies of these antique documents have gained interest from the most contemporary kind of collector: in 2021, a decentralized autonomous organization of crypto enthusiasts, calling themselves ConstitutionDAO, raised some $46 million to buy a copy of the nation’s foundational legal text. Having broadcast the price they would pay, they lost out to hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin, who brought home the document at a price of $43 million. 

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