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First-edition copy of US Constitution sells for record $43.2 million

<i>ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>A page of the first printing of the United States Constitution is displayed at the offices of Sotheby's auction house in New York on September 17. The document will be put for auction by Sotheby's New York
AFP via Getty Images
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
A page of the first printing of the United States Constitution is displayed at the offices of Sotheby's auction house in New York on September 17. The document will be put for auction by Sotheby's New York

Megan C. Hills, CNN

An exceptionally rare first-edition printed copy of the US Constitution fetched $43.2 million in New York on Thursday, becoming the most expensive historical document ever to sell at auction.

The sale also smashed the auction record for a book, manuscript or printed text, said Sotheby’s, which had initially expected bids up to $20 million.

The document is one of just 11 surviving copies — and the last in private hands — from the first printing of the final text, produced for delegates of the 1787 Constitutional Convention and Continental Congress.

Drafted during secret meetings in Philadelphia, the US Constitution laid the foundation for American democracy and guaranteed citizens’ basic rights. Following the production of two earlier drafts, the Constitutional Convention’s official printers created 500 copies of a final “official edition” and distributed them to delegates, according to Sotheby’s.

In a press release, the auction house said two parties had been involved in a “nearly 8-minute bidding battle.” A cryptocurrency investor group called Constitution DAO earlier claimed that it had raised $40 million to buy the document, but tweeted a statement indicating it had not won the auction. Sotheby’s has not disclosed the identity of the successful bidder.

The text had previously belonged to collector and philanthropist Dorothy Tapper Goldman. It was originally acquired by her late husband, Howard, and had been “one of (his) dearest possessions,” Goldman said in a statement prior to the auction.

“When it passed to me, I felt an incredible sense of responsibility to care for it, to share it, and to promote our nation’s Constitutional principles,” she added.

In a press release announcing the sale in September, Sotheby’s described the document as “rarer than the first printing of the Declaration of Independence.” The auction house’s senior books and manuscripts specialist, Selby Kiffer, was quoted saying that the item is “one of the most rare and coveted historical documents” ever to go under the hammer.

Kiffer also oversaw the document’s 1988 sale to the Goldmans, who purchased it for $165,000 from a private Philadelphia collector. In the years since, it had been loaned to institutions including the New York Historical Society and United States Supreme Court, among others. The other 10 surviving copies from the first printing are all now held in institutional collections, Sotheby’s said.

The document is part of a larger sale of historic American documents from Goldman’s collection. An early copy of the Articles of the Confederation and an official printing of the Stamp Act are among the items on offer when the auction concludes Tuesday.

Other rare copies of the US Constitution are also included in next week’s sale, such as editions signed by Presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce. The forthcoming auction will also feature a range of state constitutions, with at least one from each US state up for sale.

Proceeds are going towards the Dorothy Tapper Goldman Foundation, an organization dedicated to “furthering the understanding of our democracy and how the acts of all citizens can make a difference” according to a press release.

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