Historic Auction of America’s Founding Documents by Sotheby’s

Just ahead of America’s Independence Day, Sotheby’s is set to offer exceptionally rare contemporary printings of three pivotal documents in American history: The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.

This standalone live auction is not only a celebration of the formation of the American Republic but also a tribute to the enduring principles of democracy enshrined in these historic documents.

The documents will be displayed at Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries from June 21-25, accompanied by other highlights from Sotheby’s June Books & Manuscripts sales, including the esteemed library of Dr. Rodney P. Swantko. The dedicated live auction will take place on June 26.

Rarity and Significance of the Documents

The trio of documents up for auction are contemporary printings from their inception periods, representing extremely rare examples.

These include one of the earliest obtainable printings of The Declaration of Independence, a historic copy of The Constitution, and a newly rediscovered printing of the Bill of Rights. Each document carries immense historical value and offers a glimpse into the foundational moments of American democracy.

Historic Auction of America's Founding Documents by Sotheby’s

This particular copy of The Declaration of Independence is among the earliest obtainable printings of this cornerstone document of American liberty. It is one of only five known copies of a unique newspaper-broadside hybrid printed within a week of John Dunlap’s first edition broadside.

John Holt’s printing, featured in the July 11, 1776, issue of the New York Journal, is notable for its meticulous presentation of the Declaration’s significance. Holt’s editorial comment highlighted the importance of the document, suggesting that many subscribers likely preserved it as a symbol of their support for American independence.

The Constitution: A Historic Charter

The Declaration of Independence catalysed the American Revolution, but it was the Constitution that ensured the unity and governance of the fledgling nation. The Official Edition of the Constitution, printed in September 1787, is a monumental document.

One of the fourteen surviving copies of this edition was sold by Sotheby’s for a record $43.2 million in November 2021. This edition was printed by John Dunlap and David Claypoole, who also published the text in their Philadelphia newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet, two days later, significantly influencing the ratification debate.

The Bill of Rights: A Rediscovered Treasure

The Bill of Rights, comprising the first ten amendments to the Constitution, addressed the concerns of many states regarding individual liberties. The newly rediscovered printing of the Bill of Rights, unique and unrecorded until now, was printed by Hall and Sellers for the Pennsylvania Assembly.

This copy, found in the Collection of J. Robert Maguire, is the only known surviving copy from an edition of 100 printed for Pennsylvania legislators, making it an invaluable piece of American history.

The Last Ratification: Rhode Island’s Reluctance

Concluding the auction is a rare broadside from Rhode Island, the last of the original thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution. This 1790 document, listing thirty-six proposed amendments to the Constitution, reflects Rhode Island’s initial resistance to joining the Union due to fears of domination by larger states.

This broadside is a fascinating relic of the intense debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution and symbolizes Rhode Island’s eventual integration into the United States.

The Declaration of Independence is a seminal document in American history, embodying the principles of liberty and self-governance. The version offered at Sotheby’s is an extraordinarily rare example, printed by John Holt and uniquely combining elements of a newspaper and a broadside.

This format allowed for widespread dissemination and preservation by individuals who cherished the Declaration’s message.

The Role of the Constitution in Shaping America

The Constitution of the United States is the oldest continuing charter of government in the world. Its creation was a response to the need for a stronger federal government to maintain unity among the states.

The Official Edition of the Constitution, printed in 1787, represents the culmination of the Constitutional Convention’s efforts and has played a crucial role in American history.

Historic Auction of America's Founding Documents by Sotheby’s

The Bill of Rights was introduced to address the absence of explicit protections for individual liberties in the original Constitution. The printing offered at Sotheby’s is a newly rediscovered edition, adding a significant piece to the historical record. This document highlights the evolving nature of American democracy and the ongoing commitment to individual rights.

Early printings of these foundational documents played a vital role in shaping public opinion and encouraging debate. The dissemination of the Constitution’s text through newspapers like The Pennsylvania Packet helped foster a broader understanding and support for its ratification, demonstrating the power of the press in democratic societies.

Sotheby’s auction of these rare documents presents a unique opportunity for collectors and historians alike. The significance of these items extends beyond their monetary value, offering a tangible connection to the foundational moments of American democracy. Each document tells a story of struggle, compromise, and the enduring quest for liberty and justice.


The auction of these founding documents by Sotheby’s is a reminder of the enduring legacy of the principles enshrined in The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

These documents are not just historical artefacts; they are symbols of the democratic ideals that continue to guide and inspire the United States. The opportunity to own such significant pieces of history is rare, making this auction a landmark event in the preservation of American heritage.

Images: Sotheby’s

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