New York, June 23, 2012 – History was made at Christie’s Friday, when George Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights sold for over $9.8 million, a record price for an American autograph, document or book. And it’s going home.
Four minutes of fierce bidding from the floor and by phone quickly blew past the $2–3 million pre-sale estimate, before the signed and annotated volume ultimately hammered at $8.7 million. The final price including buyer’s fees was $9,826,500.
The winning bid was placed by Ann Bookout, regent of the board of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns and operates Washington’s estate. The book is going back into the Mount Vernon library, where it was until Washington’s grandnephew, Lawrence Washington, sold it at auction in 1876, for $13.
“We are thrilled on behalf of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association that we will bring this extraordinary book that belonged to George Washington back to Mount Vernon where it belongs,” Bookout said in a press conference after the sale. “It’s going to be the centerpiece of our library, which we are opening in the fall of 2013.”
Entitled Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America, the gold-embossed, tree calf, 106-page volume was specially printed by Thomas Allen for Washington in 1789, his first year in office as President of the United States. It recorded the momentous first session of Congress and includes the ratified Constitution, a draft of the Bill of Rights, and acts establishing the executive, state, judiciary and treasury departments.
Two other copies of the book exist, one owned by Thomas Jefferson and another presented by Washington to John Jay; with only Washington’s having President of the United States printed on the front cover. Jefferson’s is in Indiana’s Lilly Library and Jay’s in in a private collection.
Washington signed his copy in ink on the title page, and made several bracketed notations in pencil in the margins highlighting key passages concerning the president’s responsibilities. Washington’s bookplate is pasted to the front endpaper, engraved with his name, family coat of arms and the motto exitus acta probat (the end justifies the deed).
The book has had ten owners since 1789. Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington inherited it with Mount Vernon and its library from George. Bushrod’s son Lawrence inherited it from his father, and auctioned it in 1876 for the aforementioned $13. C.H. Heart sold it at auction in 1892 for $1,150. William Randolf Hearst’s mother, Phoebe, acquired the book and passed it down to Hearst.
After owners Colton Storm and then the Heritage Foundation, the book was purchased at auction by H. Richard Dietrich Jr. for $27,000 in 196. It remained in his collection for almost half a century until Dietrich’s estate consigned it to Christie’s.
The prior record for a signed American document was set in 2010, when Robert F. Kennedy’s copy of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln, sold for $3.8 million at Sotheby’s.
The prior record for a Washington autograph was set in 2009 when his 1787 letter to his nephew Bushrod Washington, laying out a series of arguments in support of adoption of the newly framed Constitution of the United States, sold at Christie’s for $3.2 million.
The record for a printed, unsigned American document was set in 2000 at Sotheby’s, when Norman Lear and David Hayden paid $8.14 million for a Dunlap Broadside, a July 4, 1776 printing of the Declaration of Independence.