News | June 13, 2024

Rare Printings of America's Three Founding Documents to Auction


Founding documents coming to auction at Sotheby's

Sotheby’s is to offer exceptionally rare contemporary printings of the three founding documents of the United States, The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.

The documents will be on public view at Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries in New York June 21 - 25 alongside highlights from Sotheby’s June Books & Manuscripts sales including the library of Dr. Rodney P. Swantko, ahead of the live auction on June 26.

The trio of documents are all contemporary printings from the time of their conception, and represent extremely rare examples of each founding document, comprising: 

* one of the earliest obtainable printings of The Declaration of Independence, printed within a week of the first printing by Dunlap and one of just five surviving copies (estimate: $2.5m-$5m)

* a copy of The Constitution, the first publication of the longest continuing charter of government in the world, coming to auction for the first time in more than 35 years (estimate: $700,000 – $1m)

 * a recently rediscovered printing of the Bill of Rights, likely the only surviving copy of an edition of 100 printed for the use of Pennsylvania’s legislators (estimate. $1m-2m). 

Representing one of the earliest obtainable printings of this cornerstone of American liberty, this copy of The Declaration of Independence is one of just five recorded copies of a distinctive newspaper-broadside hybrid printed within a week of John Dunlap’s first edition broadside, and the only copy of this group in private hands. John Holt’s printing appeared in the July 11, 1776, issue of his newspaper, the New-York Journal; or, the General Advertiser. Holt devoted the entirety of the third page of that day’s paper to the Declaration. 

The result of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787 was the Official Edition of the Constitution, the first edition of the complete and final text, printed in an edition of 500 copies on September 17, 1787, for the use of the Convention Delegates and the Confederation Congress. In November 2021, Sotheby’s sold one of the 14 surviving copies of that edition for a record $43.2 million. 
The printers of that edition were John Dunlap and his partner, David Claypoole. Two days after printing the Official Edition, Dunlap and Claypoole devoted all four pages of their Philadelphia newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, to publishing the text of the Constitution and its affiliated resolutions. On offer from a New England Educational Institution is a copy of this first publication.
Also appearing in the auction is a newly rediscovered printing of Bill of Rights. The present example, evidently unique and unrecorded, was printed by Hall and Sellers for the Pennsylvania Assembly. Though 100 copies of the amendments were to be printed for the use of its members by William Hall and William Sellers, no copies of this printing were known to have survived, until this example was recently rediscovered in the Collection of J. Robert Maguire, a collector, historian and author.  

“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," said Selby Kiffer, International Senior Specialist in Sotheby's Books & Manuscripts Department. "To have the opportunity to do this successively with the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights is both thrilling and humbling.”