Auctions | November 2, 2022

$30 Million Estimate for Rare First Printing of U.S. Constitution

Courtesy Sotheby's

The Official Edition of the Constitution, the First Printing of the Final Text of the Constitution.

New York – 235 years ago, America’s Founding Fathers signed the United States Constitution at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, marking the formation of the country’s most significant and lasting document—as well as the longest continuing charter of government in the world. Sotheby’s unveiled one of only two known copies of The Official Edition of the Constitution, the First Printing of the Final Text of the Constitution that are in private hands, which will come to auction for the first time in more than 125 years in a dedicated live sale in New York on 13 December. The announcement follows the historic November 2021 sale at Sotheby’s of the Goldman Constitution, the other privately owned copy of the official first printing of the Constitution, which sold for a milestone $43.2 million and established a new record for any book, manuscript, or printed text sold at auction.
The present copy of the Constitution has a particularly intriguing provenance as it seems to be the very first copy  to have been recognized by the historical and collecting communities as an example of the Official Edition of the Constitution. It last appeared at auction in Philadelphia in 1894, as part of the legendary collection of Charles Colcock Jones, a Georgia lawyer, politician, and amateur historian.
The Constitution was acquired as a gift for the young Adrian Van Sinderen (1887-1963) and spurred his early interest in American history and book collecting. Van Sinderen later received encouragement from from his wife’s uncle, William Augustus White, one of the titans of American bibliophily. Van Sinderen himself became one of the most accomplished, if now little recognized, book collectors of the mid-twentieth century.
Van Sinderen was more interested in promoting various civic and educational endeavors (including the Van Sinderen Book Collecting Prizes for undergraduates at Yale) than in publicizing his own collection. But he was, nonetheless, an extraordinary collector—he was the last individual to own a copy of The Bay Psalm Book, 1640, the first book printed in British North America, until Sotheby’s sold a duplicate copy belonging to Boston’s Old South Church to David Rubenstein in 2013. (Van Sinderen’s copy, one of just eleven that survive, was given to the Library of Congress after his death.)
Coming to auction this December for the first time in more than 125 years, with an estimate of $20/30 million, matching the most significant estimate ever placed on a historic document offered at auction, the present copy of the Constitution is extremely rare, and is one of just 13 known copies of the official printing produced for the delegates of the Constitutional Convention and for the Continental Congress, with 11 of those copies in renowned institutional and government collections. The other copy was acquired last November by Kenneth Griffin, Founder and CEO of Citadel, who then loaned the document to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for their exhibition, “We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy.”
The sale of the Constitution in November 2021 created a unique cultural phenomenon that generated news headlines around the world – more than 12,000 media stories to date – following the historic crowdfunding effort of ConstitutionDAO, a decentralized autonomous organization created for the express purpose of raising money to acquire the Constitution at auction. With more than 17,000 contributors who, in a matter of only weeks, raised more than $40 million combined in Ether cryptocurrency, the DAO’s crowdfunding efforts, fueled by social media conversation on Discord and Twitter as well as traditional media exposure from major international news outlets, was the most significant crowdfunding initiative ever undertaken. Ultimately, the DAO was outbid by Mr. Griffin, who was bidding anonymously during the auction through Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s Chairman and Worldwide Head of Sales for Global Fine Art, with the final selling price reaching $43.2 million—an unprecedented milestone for a historic document at auction.
Attracting viewers from around the world, the much-anticipated live auction was Sotheby’s most watched auction of all time, galvanized by the legions of ConstitutionDAO contributors and supporters, primarily from the crypto and tech communities, as well as curious onlookers who tuned in to watch an auction first: a DAO’s participation in a major auction.
Now, almost a year exactly from the sale of the Goldman Constitution, the present copy of the Constitution will be on public view at Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries from 4 – 22 November, where it will be on view alongside Sotheby’s exhibitions for the Modern Evening Auction, Contemporary Evening Auction and The Now Evening Auction, before going on exhibition once more in New York from 30 November – 12 December in advance of the auction on 13 December. The exhibition beginning 4 November marks the Constitution’s first appearance in public in 35 years.

“Having had the honor of offering the Goldman copy of the Constitution at auction twice before, first in 1988 and again last year, it is an immense honor to bring to auction the only other copy of the first printing of the Constitution remaining in private hands. Copies from the first printing have only appeared at auction a handful of times since they were first printed and issued to delegates more than 200 years ago, so the appearance of this copy on the market is truly a special moment. While the lasting importance and relevance of the Constitution is often an anodyne talking point today, the fact remains that it is unequivocally the most significant document in United States history, and one that will continue to influence the future of democratic principles in America and around the world.” Selby Kiffer, Sotheby’s International Senior Specialist for Books & Manuscripts.