First draft of US constitution sells for $43m

Selling for $73,500 (£53,000) below the presale estimate, the 4th revision of the document is hailed as ‘an extraordinary, truly historic collection’

The earliest copy of the US constitution, drafted in Philadelphia before the US voted to form a government, has been sold at auction for more than $43m (£30m).

The copy from 1787, known as a manuscript version, went under the hammer on Friday at Bonhams in New York City, where the stamp and frame were also sold for a total of $88,500. The selling price reflects $500,000 commission, making it the highest price ever paid for a US constitutional text at auction.

Bonhams noted that the document is one of only 12 of its original state, and only one of five of the 4th revision. It is believed to be the most complete one of the variety of copy of the document held around the world.

Benjamin Franklin’s 1787 draft of the constitution (bottom left), and one of the items in the 3rd edition. Photograph: Bonhams

The story of the US constitution is one of revolutions and struggles between the elite white male candidates who won the nominations and the real grassroots movements that forced them to change.

It is a story that is missing from much of history books, according to the auction house. It is significant, Bonhams said, “to recognize that the text itself so fundamentally changed the very foundations of the world order”.

The manuscript had been held in a private collection in New York since 1933, where it had lain unnoticed in a filing cabinet for decades until it was rediscovered in its current state. It was purchased by a high-profile name in the publishing business, who sold it for $4.8m in 2014 before deciding to sell it in its entirety, Bonhams said.

During the sale, the author and historian Garrett Colburn commented on the significance of the auction.

“Its price suggests that it has the potential to become a foundational piece in the study of American history,” Colburn said. “It is a very significant document to have on display, so that the contemporary reader can begin to understand its meaning.”

The seller, Melvyn Leventhal, was an early 20th-century American publisher, the auction house said. In a posting on Bonhams’ website, Leventhal said: “This is a remarkable collection.

Leave a Comment