Friday - 28 November 2014

Washington’s Constitution sets an $8.7m record

02 July 2012Written by Ian McKay

What has been a rich summer season of American book and manuscript sales culminated when Christie’s New York saw a record for any American book or historical document.

Set at $8.7m (£5.58m), it was posted for George Washington's annotated copy of the 1789 printing of the Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America…, in effect the US Constitution and the proposed Bill of Rights. The sale took place on June 22.

Bearing the first president's bold signature and armorial bookplate, this slim volume in its contemporary binding of polished tree calf gilt is still in almost pristine condition, and that despite the fact that Washington had obviously spent much time poring over its pages.

Carefully inserted brackets and marginal notes highlight key passages regarding presidential responsibilities, testifying, said the Christie's cataloguer, to his careful and conscientious approach to the powers, duties and responsibilities of his ground-breaking first term.

The volume Washington once described as "the guide I will never abandon" remained in the library at Vernon, his Virginia home, until 1876, when a descendant sold it in a Philadelphia auction, along with many other books from his library.

Provenance

Since that time it has passed through several hands, including those of William Randolph Hearst and the Heritage Foundation of Deerfield, Massachusetts, but it is almost 50 years since they sold it on. In 1964 it was acquired at $27,000 by Americana collector Richard Dietrich Jnr., and it was the Dietrich American Foundation which sent it to auction this summer - but it is unlikely that it will ever again come under the hammer.

This time the winning bid, against an estimate of $2m-3m, was made on behalf of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, a non-profit educational organisation that owns and operates the museum and historical site at Mount Vernon.

Thomas Allen of New York, who printed and specially bound Washington's copy of Acts Passed… also created similar volumes for the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson and for the Attorney General, John Jay.

Jefferson's copy is now in the Lilly Library at Bloomington, Indiana, but Jay's copy, which made $150,000 as part of the Doheny library at Christie's in 1989 and two years later sold for $210,000 as part of the Richard Manney library at Sotheby's New York, remains in private hands.

The buyer's premium was 25/20/12%

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