WASHINGTON — George Washington’s 223-year-old copies of the Constitution and Bill of Rights are expected to go for bids of $2 million to $3 million at auction next week.
The documents are bound in a book that contains notes in Washington’s handwriting, including notations of the responsibilities of the president. The book was displayed for reporters at a hotel in the nation’s capital on Tuesday. Christie’s auction house plans to offer the documents to bidders on June 22 in New York.
Thomas Lecky, head of Christie’s books and manuscripts department, called the book “certainly on the one hand of great things” to have passed through the auction house in his time. This copy of the Constitution, bound by Thomas Allen of New York in 1789, was one of a set of three. The other two copies went to President Thomas Jefferson and John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington’s documents rank, Lecky said, among the more notable items previously auctioned by Christie’s, such as one of Shakespeare’s first folios, Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 victory speech, and three copies of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.”
In a room lit by chandeliers, Christie’s senior specialist for books and manuscripts Chris Coover used no gloves as he lifted the book’s pages. The book is in exceptional condition, Coover said, because of its high-quality paper and the care that its previous owners had shown for it.
The paper hosting the articles that serve as a foundation for the country’s laws were thick and largely unmarked, save for Washington’s own notes, scribbled in pencil in the margins. Most of the notes showed sections bracketed off and marked “president,” indicating the duties and responsibilities Washington saw as his own.
Washington also signed his name on the title page, a sprawling line in the top right corner.
The documents are unique, Coover and Lecky said, because Washington rarely wrote in the margins of his volumes. With no Kindle or iPad on hand to drop in electronic bookmarks, the first president used a pencil to annotate the Constitution.
The estimated winning bid for the volume shown Tuesday is based on the final bid for a 1787 letter that Washington wrote about the Constitution, Coover said. Christie’s sold that document in 2009 for $3.2 million, Coover said.
The documents displayed Tuesday were part of the estate of H. Richard Dietrich, Jr., an art collector and businessman from Chester Springs, Penn., who died in 2007.
After Washington’s death in December 1799, his copy of the Constitution remained at his Mount Vernon library until relatives sold it in 1876 along with about 100 other items. After that, Coover said, it fell into several different hands before Dietrich bought it at an auction in 1964.
William M. Ferraro, associate editor of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia, said records show that Washington’s Constitution fetched $13 the first time it was sold, and $1,150 when it sold again less than two decades later.
The auction house’s estimate of $3 million might be a little high, Ferraro said, “but these sort of things don’t come up all the time.” He said the annotations in the margins — not Washington’s signature — made the book unique.
The original Constitution was adopted March 4, 1789, less than two months before Washington took office, and the Bill of Rights, containing 10 amendments limiting the power of the government, was added December 15, 1791.
Washington’s copy of the Bill of Rights, published before it was fully vetted, contains 12 amendments.