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A rare copy of the first printing of the U.S. Constitution is going up for auction

An image shows the first page of the first printing of the final text of the U.S. Constitution<strong>. </strong>The rare document will go up for auction in December, Sotheby's announced on Tuesday.
Courtesy Sotheby's
An image shows the first page of the first printing of the final text of the U.S. Constitution. The rare document will go up for auction in December, Sotheby's announced on Tuesday.

Updated November 1, 2022 at 1:41 PM ET

Only two copies from the first printing of the final text of the U.S. Constitution are known to be in private hands. One of them sold for a record $43.2 million last year; the second is going on the auction block next month.

The document, dubbed the "Adrian Van Sinderen Constitution" after its longtime owner, hasn't been put up for auction since 1894, according to Sotheby's, which will take bids for it in New York on Dec. 13.

The auction house estimates that the copy will sell for at least $20 million to $30 million — an amount that equals its highest pre-sale estimate for any historic document.

Didn't we just have a big Constitution auction?

News of the looming sale comes a year after the auction of the Goldman Constitution became a public sensation, driven by a fresh focus on America's democratic traditions and an abiding interest in the Nicolas Cage film National Treasure.

In last November's auction, a group launched a crowdfunded effort to buy the rare copy of the Constitution, raising more than $40 million from more than 17,000 people in hopes of putting the document on permanent public display. But they were outbid by one person: billionaire Kenneth Griffin, who founded the Citadel hedge fund.

Last year's attempt to collectively purchase the Goldman Constitution was organized by a group called ConstitutionDAO, based around cryptocurrency technology. After the new auction was announced on Tuesday, NPR contacted the group via Twitter to ask if it intends to mount another campaign.

"We're looking into it," the group replied.

The DAO in the bidding group's name refers to a "decentralized autonomous organization" — a term that, in retrospect, might also be said to apply to the group of former British colonies in the late 1700s.

It's one of only 13 copies known to exist

This copy of the Constitution dates to 1787, when the Continental Congress called for the former colonies to gather for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The assembly was meant to hammer out problems in 1777's Articles of Confederation — but instead, the delegates drafted a new governing document.

When the final text emerged from months of work, hundreds of official copies were printed. But through the years, only a fraction of them have survived.

"Printed in an edition of approximately 500 copies by John Dunlap and David Claypoole, the official printers to the Convention, only 13 copies are now known to exist, and of those, just two copies remain in private hands," according to Sotheby's. The other copies are owned by governments and institutions.

"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," said Selby Kiffer, Sotheby's International Senior Specialist for Books & Manuscripts.

The document will go on display before the sale

While many current legal and political debates center on how to interpret the Constitution, Kiffer said, "the fact remains that it is unequivocally the most significant document in United States history" — and one that stands to influence democracy in the U.S. and abroad for years to come.

Before the rare copy of the U.S. Constitution goes up for sale, it will go on public exhibit in New York, starting this Friday: Sotheby's will have the Van Sinderen Constitution in its galleries from Nov. 4–22, with a second exhibition planned from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.

The last time the document was seen in public was in 1987, when it was exhibited at Stanford University, according to Sotheby's.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.