Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2012 Issue

Washington and Lincoln Dominate the Rooms

Gw-1789

George Washington's annotated copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights 1789

With all the bad news coming out of Washington, D. C. it is easy to think that all things Washington are in decline or at least under siege but it’s not so.  George continues to do very well.  Evidence of this was visible at 20 Rockefeller Center, in the auction rooms at Christie’s, where on Friday 22 the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union chased all bidders off the phones and out of the rooms as they pursued a remarkable piece of Americana, Washington’s personal copy of Acts of Congress, including the Constitution and draft Bill of Rights, a volume specially printed and bound for the President in 1789, his first year in office as first President of the United States.  They came to the sale with a somewhat larger budget than the estimated $2-3 million and needed to use most of it.  The high estimate of $3.0 million was, as is often the case at Christie’s, understated to encourage a broader audience to bid.  Serious bidders looked beyond the estimates to the prestige of owning a once-in-a-lifetime piece and sent the price all in to $9.8 million, the highest price ever paid for a piece of printed Americana.  One wonders who the under bidder is.
  

This copy, once the property of the Washington family, was sold at M. Thomas & Sons Auctioneers by Lawrence A. Washington in 1876.  It sold again in the rooms in the C. H. Hart sale at Thomas Birch’s Sons in Philadelphia in April 1892 for $1,150.  Years later it was acquired by the Heritage Foundation of Deerfield, Massachusetts and subsequently sold at Park-Bernet on November 17th, 1964 for $27,000 to George Sessler bidding on behalf of H. Richard Dietrich, Jr.   His heirs consigned it to Christie’s.
   

The significance and impact of the Washington provenance, its unique binding, impeccable condition and both his signature and notes made it a fitting best in the field.  Others copies come up although not with the extraordinary provenance or important annotations.  A more ordinary example but nevertheless very important copy was sold at the Laird Park sale in 2000 for $35,250.  That puts the premium on the Washington connection and its exceptional condition at 278 times.  That sounds about right.

The previous highest price paid for printed Americana at auction was the set of Audubon's [folio] birds that Christie's sold in 2000.  It brought $8,802,500

This leaves us only with dread for 2076 that the Mount Vernon Ladies Association may confront the next American centennial, access the excitement and be tempted to cash their chips.  If so, that transaction will be well north of $50 million.

As to mundane details of paying for the sale just concluded the Ladies will invariably pay by check or wire transfer but should they decide to further honor Washington by paying in cash with $1.00 bills the stack will be 321.52 feet high.  Assuming the same rate of appreciation between now and 2076 the next stack of will be at least 1,640.41 feet.

Another important item, a June 1864 copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of 45 signed by Lincoln and sold for $10 to raise money for the Civil War Relief Fund, was hammered down by Robert Siegel [usually stamp] Auction Galleries on Tuesday June 27th for $1.85 million plus hammer, $2.1 million all in.  It was co-marketed by Seth Kaller, the important Americana dealer.   David Rubenstein, managing director of The Carlyle Group investment firm, was the buyer.  It will be displayed in Washington, D. C. once an appropriate venue is identified.

Patriotism is apparently in.

Rare Book Monthly

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