A World Record Price Set for an item in the Books, Manuscripts, Maps and Ephemera Category

- by Bruce E. McKinney

The U.S. Constitution

World records are born to die and Bill Gates’ purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s Leicester Codex for $30.8 has been the gold standard in the category of books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera since 1994.  Recently a new world record price for any item within these categories was recently bid for what is believed to be one of the only copies of the first printing of the U. S. Constitution in private hands.  The new world record is $43,173,000.  Twelve other copies of this 1777 imprint are known.


Such a monumental outcome of course is certainly going to prompt inventory searches elsewhere and “what if” discussions among institutions that own one, possibly leading to decisions to convert their masterpieces into a budget to reimagine their library in the digital world. The American constitution was an act of pure genius and I suspect the founding fathers would come down on the side of the future. 


About the sale, Sotheby’s did a masterful job, enticing two or more bidders to throw away their budgets and ignore its thin auction history.  The interested parties simply had to dream a dream.   A group of cryptocurrency enthusiasts organized themselves as ConstitutionDAO to bid while winning bidder, Kenneth Griffin, a wealthy capitalist and self-made man, simply had to say to himself “I’m in.” Sotheby’s estimate had the feel of inspiration:  $15,000,000 to $20,000,000.  Too many involved in the field over the recent decades simply had to watch to see what would happen and I think they must have been united in their hope that the lot would sell for a large number.  And when it did, I think it’s accurate to describe the outcome as a major victory for the entire field.  And why?  The field has tens of thousands of important manuscript and printed documents that collectors and collecting institutions will well consider to buy or bid if they are offered.  But, simply stated, the field has been compressed by resistance at the top for the past 10 years but if auction realizations continue to run higher, every segment of the field will be encouraged to get out their best stuff and strut the strut.


Over the past 20 years we have seen paintings soar to the moon while exceptional, collectible paper, has generally been stable subject to appeal, rarity and condition.  Sotheby’s recent outcome suggests collectible paper may have a way to go.


For reference I include Sotheby’s now further updated Census of Copies:


1. Kenneth Griffin
2. Delaware Hall of Records
3. New Jersey State Library
4. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division (Edmund Pendleton copy)
5. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division (James Madison)
6. Independence National Historical Park (George Washington copy)
7. American Philosophical Society Library (Benjamin Franklin copy inscribed to the Rev. Mr. Lathrop)
8. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
9. Gilder Lehrman Collection, New-York Historical Society (Benjamin Franklin copy inscribed to Jonathan Williams, Sr.; pages 1–4 only)
10. Private American Collection
11. Public Records Office, London, England
12. Scheide Library, Princeton University
13. Huntington Library