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The first-edition printed copy of the US Constitution sold at Sotheby’s New York for $41m (£30.4m). Image credit: Ardon Bar-Hama.

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After an eight-minute bidding battle the highest price ever reached for a book, manuscript or printed text at auction was reached at Sotheby’s in New York (November 18).

In between two contemporary art sales, the auction house sold the rare first-edition printed copy of the United States constitution for a hammer price of $41m (£30.4m) or $43.2m including fees.

As adopted by America’s founding fathers at a convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the document is one of just 13 known copies of the official printing produced for the delegates to Constitutional Convention and for the Continental Congress, and only two copies of the first printing of the Constitution that remain in private hands. 

It had been estimated at $15m-20m and the lot was underbid by a group of cryptocurrency enthusiasts called ConstitionDAO. The group, of 17,000-plus people, had crowdfunded the bid online through social media in a week. 

Public display

Hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin, founder and CEO of US investment firm Citadel, announced he was the buyer of the document following the sale. He has agreed to loan it to Crystal Bridges Museum of American art in Arkansas for public exhibition.

Griffin said: “I intend to ensure that this copy of our Constitution will be available for all Americans and visitors to view and appreciate in our museums and other public spaces. I am pleased that Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which always offers free admission, will be the first venue to display our country’s foundational document.”

The document last sold for $165,000 in 1988, when it was acquired by New York real estate developer the late S Howard Goldman who died in 1997.

His widow, Dorothy Tapper Goldman, is offering it for sale alongside another 80 items from their collection. Proceeds from the sale of the constitution will go to Goldman’s charitable foundation.

Another group of works from the Goldman collection will be offered online from November 23-December 2 at Sotheby's.

The previous auction record for a printed work was set when American businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein paid $12.5m (£8.1m) – $14.2m with premium – at Sotheby's New York in November 2013 for the Bay Psalm Book – the first printed book in what is now the USA.

The previous auction record for any historical document was $21.3m (including premium) for the 1297 Magna Carta sold at Sotheby’s in 2007, while the previous auction record for any book and manuscript was the $30,8m (including premium) for The Codex Leicester sold at Christie’s in 1994.