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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of History: Historical Documents Remain Coveted by Collectors

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of History: Historical Documents Remain Coveted by Collectors
July 13, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: Heritage Auctions

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In a haze of fireworks and hot dog overconsumption, it's easy to briefly forget that the Fourth of July is not in fact a celebration of Joey Chestnut's frank-eating conquests, but rather of that day in 1776 when the founding fathers declared independence.

As it turns out, American history remains deeply prized by collectors, evidenced by the recent results of the Historical Platinum Signature Auction at Heritage. Few documents are more emblematic of that desirability than a first broadside edition of the Declaration of Independence. Yes, it's even more valuable than the copy used in National Treasure (it sold at Propstore for £25,000 in 2021).

The copy at Heritage was a broadside printed by John Rogers of the American Gazette in Salem, Massachusetts at Ezekiel Elliot's shop. It's believed that it was printed before the officially-commissioned Massachusetts broadside in the same shop, and there's evidence to suggest it was printed before the newspaper version, possibly making it the very first edition printed in the state. It's one of just six known copies of this edition extant and one of two in private hands.

The other copy in private hands sold in May of 2022 at Christie's for $2,100,000 against an estimate of $1,000,000 to $2,000,000. It had previously sold in 2010 for $572,000, appreciating at a rate of over 10% annually.

The Heritage result comfortably set a new high watermark for the edition, selling for $2,895,000. That's the highest result achieved for a non-Dunlap broadside. The Dunlap broadsides were the first printed and are therefore exceedingly valuable; one such copy sold for $8,140,000 all the way back in 2000. The result at Heritage is fairly remarkable given provenance that dates only to the 1960s, indicating that documents of this scarcity and historical significance remain immensely coveted.

Rally shareholders in their own Declaration broadside will have watched with great interest as the auction unfolded. A popular asset on the platform, it was initially offered at a $2,000,000 valuation and has since skyrocketed to $3,724,000, at some points eclipsing $4,000,000.

The Rally copy is an Exeter, NH broadside, with very early provenance to the family of 19th century engraver Charles Toppan. The condition has also been described as "fine" by relevant experts, which is actually quite an esteemed compliment for a document of this age. The edition itself is not of the same rarity as the first Massachusetts printing, with four copies in private hands. Overall, the Heritage sale is relevant, but prospective buyers and existing shareholders will draw their own conclusions on the puts and takes of value.

The Declaration wasn't the only piece of American history to draw heavy bidding. Four other documents achieved six-figure results:

  • $471,000 - Abraham Lincoln Document Signed as President. In the letter, Lincoln authorized the blockade of ports of seven southern states after the surrender of Fort Sumter, effectively igniting the Civil War in earnest.
  • $187,500 - Abraham Lincoln Assassination Printed Reward Poster. This item is a first printing, first issue broadside of the poster offering $100,000 in total for apprehension of those involved in the assassination, including $50,000 specifically for Booth. The copy had previously sold for $19,550 at Christie's in 1996, appreciating at a rate of approximately 9% annually.
  • $175,000 - George Washington Autograph Letter. Written in 1780, just weeks after the treason of Benedict Arnold was exposed, Washington writes to George Mason expressing his concerns at the weakness of the Continental Army and nominating Nathaniel Greene to lead its southern forces.
  • $106,250 - Bill of Rights, Gazette of the United States. A 1789 copy of the Gazette of the United States which included one of the first printings of twelve amendments to the Constitution that would later become known as the Bill of Rights.

Perhaps one day, when Joey Jaws has been chiseled into Mount Rushmore, his Nathan's title belts will sell for prices that make these document results look modest. Until then, though, it's clear the appetite for significant relics of our nation's history remains ravenous.

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