Rare First Printing of the U.S. Constitution Is the Most Expensive Text Ever Sold at Auction

A collective of cryptocurrency owners attempted to buy the document but was outbid by Citadel CEO Kenneth Griffin, who shelled out $43.2 million

Close-up view of the Constitution copy
The rare document is one of only two surviving first printings of the Constitution held by private collectors. Ardon Bar-Hama / Courtesy of Sotheby's

One of just two privately owned first printings of the United States Constitution sold yesterday for $43.2 million, becoming the most expensive book, manuscript, historical document or printed text ever sold at auction, reports Sarah Cascone for Artnet News. The winning bid was more than double the presale estimate of $15 to $20 million.

Sotheby’s Thursday night sale surpassed the record set by Bill Gates, who bought Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester” notebook at Christie’s for $30.8 million in 1994 (roughly $57 million today). Per a statement, Kenneth Griffin, CEO of the Citadel investment group, made the winning bid. He plans to loan the document to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, for a free public exhibition.

“The U.S. Constitution is a sacred document that enshrines the rights of every American and all those who aspire to be,” says Griffin in the statement. “That is why I intend to ensure that this copy of our Constitution will be available for all Americans and visitors to view and appreciate in our museums and other public spaces.”

According to the auction listing, the first printing of the Constitution was made exclusively for delegates at the Constitutional Convention and members of the Continental Congress. The 1787 printing run included approximately 500 copies, only 13 of which are known to survive today. Eleven are housed in institutional collections.

The original printing of the Constitution consisted of 500 copies. Courtesy of Sotheby’s

After the end of the convention in September 1787, many of the delegates sent copies to their colleagues. Some were used at state conventions during votes on ratifying the federal Constitution. Others ended up in print shops around the country, where printers made copies for local distribution.

Ahead of the sale, cryptocurrency owners seeking to bid on the document created a collective known as ConstitutionDAO. (A DAO, or decentralized autonomous organization, uses blockchain-based contracts to allow a group of individuals to collectively organize a project, including owning and managing assets.) The group crowdfunded $40 million in less than a week, reports Kevin Roose for the New York Times. Last month, a similar collective, PleasrDAO, purchased the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for $4 million. 

The official ConstitutionDAO Twitter account confirmed on Thursday that the collective was not the successful bidder. Per a Twitter post, 17,437 people contributed to the effort, making a median donation of $206.26. 

“We are so incredibly grateful to have done this together with you and are still in shock that we even got this far,” the group stated, adding that the project educated “people around the world” about the possibilities of decentralized ways of organizing activity on the internet (a movement sometimes known as web3).

If ConstitutionDAO had succeeded in purchasing the copy of the Constitution, organizers would have partnered with another group to display the document to the public for free. According to an FAQ on the group’s website, donors would have received a “governance token” allowing them to vote on “where the Constitution should be displayed, how it should be exhibited, and the mission and values” of the collective.

“I thought the idea of ‘for the people’ to be bought by the people was kind of funny, and also pretty historic,” Christian Tirone, a filmmaker and 3-D artist who donated to the project, tells the Washington Post’s Rachel Lerman.

Dorothy Goldman, a collector of rare printed Americana, sold the copy of the Constitution. Her husband, real estate developer and collector S. Howard Goldman, bought it in 1988 for $165,000. He died in 1997. Proceeds from the sale will go to the Dorothy Tapper Goldman Foundation, which is dedicated to “furthering the understanding of our democracy and how the acts of all citizens can make a difference,” per Sotheby’s

“What we tried to do was make the Constitution more accessible to the public,” ConstitutionDAO core organizer Anisha Sunkerneni tells the Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow and Omar Abdel-Baqui. “Although we might have not completely accomplished doing just that, I think we've raised enough awareness to illustrate that a DAO is another option.”

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