You Could Own Rare Copies of the Nation’s Founding Documents, Just in Time for the Fourth of July

Sotheby’s is auctioning early printings of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as a 1790 Rhode Island broadside

Founding documents for sale
These rare early copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights will go under the hammer on June 26. Courtesy of Sotheby's

Later this month, Sotheby’s will celebrate the anniversary of the United States’ founding by selling early copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Together, the documents could sell for up to $8 million.

The June 26 sale will be a live, standalone auction in New York City. The copy of the Declaration of Independence is the priciest piece up for grabs, with a high estimate of $5 million. According to a Sotheby’s statement, it is one of just five known printings of its kind, and the only one of these five in a private collection.

The early version of the Declaration appeared in the July 11, 1776, issue of the New-York Journal; or, the General Advertiser, a week after the document’s initial publication by printer John Dunlap on the evening of July 4. The Journal’s newspaper-broadside hybrid is much smaller than the handwritten original. Publisher and printer John Holt dedicated an entire page to the Declaration, knowing that people would want to keep a copy of the now-historic document.

On the newspaper’s second page, Holt wrote an editorial comment “to oblige a number of our customers,” encouraging readers to cut the document out of the paper and “fix it up, in open view, in their houses, as a mark of their approbation of the independent spirit of their representatives,” notes Sotheby’s in the lot listing.

As the official printer of the Continental Congress, Dunlap published the original editions of the Constitution and the Declaration. The auction house’s copy of the Constitution also comes from Dunlap, who, with printing partner David Claypoole, dedicated all four pages of the September 19, 1787, edition of the Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser to the historic document and its resolutions.

A copy of the Constitution, as published in the Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser​​​​​​​
A copy of the Constitution, as published in the Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser Courtesy of Sotheby's

The upcoming sale marks the first time this specific copy of the Constitution, worth an estimated $700,000 to $1 million, has hit the auction block in more than 35 years. In 2021, Sotheby’s sold a separate copy of Dunlap’s first-edition printing of the Constitution for $43.2 million.

“What we sold in 2021 was the official first printing of the final and full text, printed only for delegates,” Selby Kiffer, a Sotheby’s senior vice president specializing in books and manuscripts, tells Geoff Nudelman of Barron’s. “What’s striking about this copy isn’t so much the differences but the similarities [to the official document].”

The Packet printing represents the first time that members of the public had the chance to read the ratified Constitution for themselves.

“Since the official copies were restricted for delegate use, this is as close to the first printing as is possible to be,” Kiffer says. “Things like the official editions are increasingly difficult to obtain, so you look for the next best thing.”

The version of the Bill of Rights up for auction at Sotheby’s is a rare broadside edition dated to 1789. It was among the 100 copies used by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to debate the first amendments to the Constitution. According to Sotheby’s, no copies of this printing were known to have survived until this version reappeared in the collection of the late historian and author J. Robert Maguire. The text has an estimated value of $1 to $2 million.

The Rhode Island broadside
The Rhode Island broadside Courtesy of Sotheby's

In addition to these three founding documents, the auction house will sell a 1790 broadside from Rhode Island, the U.S.’s smallest state and the only one that didn’t send any delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The text, which is expected to fetch between $300,000 and $600,000, boasts the lofty title of “The Bill of Rights, and Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, as Agreed to by the Convention of the State of Rhode-Island.” It proposes 36 changes to the Constitution, which had already been ratified but not yet accepted by Rhode Island.

For those hoping to view these historic papers in person, Sotheby’s will be exhibiting all four documents in New York from June 21 to 25.

“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,” says Kiffer in the statement. “To have the opportunity to do this successively with the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights is both thrilling and humbling.”

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