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Dozens of Rare Documents From American History Just Sold at Auction

Original copies of the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation just sold for millions

A close-up of Abraham Lincoln's signature on the Emancipation Proclamation. (Courtesy of Sotheby's)
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A few history buffs with a lot of cash to burn just had a field day at an auction of rare documents. Dozens of rare documents from periods spanning 200 years of American history just went up for auction, with original manuscripts and historical artifacts selling for millions of dollars apiece. But while many of the items are intriguing bits of history, perhaps none are more exciting than the original copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment that were up for sale—the first time the pair have been sold at the same time.

“The significance of them is really overwhelming,” Selby Kiffer, international senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s Auction House, tells Lilly Workneh for the Huffington Post. “In terms of historical significance — other than the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the Constitution—these rare two documents are some of the greatest documents of American history.”

Unsurprisingly, the copies of these documents fetched multi-million-dollar bids in the Wednesday afternoon auction, with the Emancipation Proclamation selling for $2.17 million and the 13th Amendment raking in $2.41 million. They are each members of just a handful of original copies still existing and held in private hands, and they each bear the original signatures of Abraham Lincoln, as well as contemporaries like William Seward and Schuyler Colfax, Guelda Voien reports for the Observer.

Emancipation Proclamation
The "Authorized Edition" of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy of Sotheby's)

It might sound a bit like heresy to think of these incredibly important documents being passed around private hands, but in fact that was the reason Lincoln originally signed this particular copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. He originally issued the historic order abolishing slavery and setting 4 million Americans free in 1863, but the copy that just sold dates back to a year later. In the months after the Proclamation was issued, Lincoln had 48 copies printed up and signed each of them; the manuscripts were then sold as a means to raise money for the Sanitary Commission, a fund that supported Union soldiers and their families, Claire Zillman writes for Fortune. Only 27 of those copies has survived to this day, and 20 of them remain framed in public institutions.

On the other hand, the copy of the 13th Amendment that just sold is a fair sight rarer: the edition auctioned off in the sale is one of only fourteen original copies signed by Lincoln. Previously owned by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting history education, it was put up for auction in the sale in order to raise funds for its work, Workneh reports. While this copy was sold to a private buyer, most of the other surviving copies remain in the hands of public institutions and museums.

13 amendment
An extremely rare manuscript copy of the Thirteenth Amendment To The United States Constitution, signed and endorsed by Abraham Lincoln. (Courtesy of Sotheby's)

While these were perhaps the two most important documents up for sale, the auction featured many more intriguing bits of history. One broadside dating back to 1768 was the work of the Founding Father John Hancock, who used the document to rail against the British Parliament imposing unfair taxes on the 13 Colonies. Another document dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s presidency foreshadows the War of 1812 as the third president briefed Congress and the Senate on the growing foreign policy crisis caused by violations of America’s neutrality by Britain and France. The lot also featured original copies of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense.”

Given that these documents ended up selling for exorbitant prices, it’s fair to say most people wouldn’t have much of a shot at winning the auction. Still, it’s fun to imagine having an original copy of the document that liberated millions of Americans hanging on your wall.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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