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Little more than half of the 177 lots found buyers in a Sotheby’s New York (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium) sale held on January 17, but overall the lots sold raised a premium-inclusive $4.29m (£3.1m) and half-a-dozen of them made six-figure sums.

The broadside, printed on July 17, barely a fortnight after the original John Dunlap printing for Congress, sold at $975,000 (£706,520).

On an untrimmed sheet of laid paper with deckled edges, this fine copy – one originally sent by the printer, Ezekiel Russell, to the Rev Gay of Hingham, Massachusetts – was making its second auction appearance in 14 years. In 2004, in the same rooms, it had sold for $400,000 as part of the library of Mrs J Insley Blair.

Historic and costly documents such as this tend to be the preserve of the major salerooms, but on November 11 last year one of only five recorded copies of John Holt’s New York printing of the Declaration was offered by Blanchard’s Auction Service (20% buyer’s premium) of Potsdam, a small town in upstate New York.

Printed only five days after the Declaration, it had remained in the same family ever since. It sold at $1.5m (then £1.14m).

Adams commission

Sold at a record $350,000 (£260,225) by Christie’s New York (25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) on December 5 last year was a rare paper proof of the meticulously engraved broadside facsimile of the original Declaration of Independence commissioned many years later by John Quincy Adams.

In 1823, after three years work, WL Stone completed an edition of 201 of these vellum copies for distribution and presentation by the Department of State.

Presented in 1851 to Brigham Young, newly appointed Governor of the Territory of Utah, this paper version was thought to be unique when sold by Christie’s Los Angeles in 2002 for $150,000, but since then another five have come to light and four of them have come to auction.

In 2012 Christie’s sold a copy of the main vellum version at $650,000.

Six-figure successes

The other six-figure successes in this early season Sotheby’s sale included three cartographic lots.

The remaining three were a 1590 account of the first British colony in the New World; an exceptionally rare broadside of 1784 and a spectacular 19th century pictorial record of Yellowstone National Park.

Mathematician and navigator Thomas Hariot’s …Virginia, printed and published in Frankfurt in 1590, is an illustrated description of the first British colony in the Americas – the first such work on any part of what is now the US.

Sold for $200,000 (£144,925), this New York copy was a first German text edition of the first published title in what was to develop into a hugely influential series of works that later came to be known, after the editor, engraver and publisher, Theodore de Bry, as the ‘Great Voyages’.

It is illustrated with 27 engraved plates after watercolours by John White, and in this copy all show exceptionally fine contemporary colouring, as does the important map of the Virginia coast and Carolina capes.

Printed in Annapolis on March 1, 1784, by the above-mentioned John Dunlap, was what appears to be the only example ever seen at auction of Thomas Jefferson’s Plan for the temporary Government of the Western Territory…

Described as a broadside document that articulated a liberal policy for organising new states in the Western Territory, and one whose importance was exceeded only by the Constitution itself and by Congress’ proposal of a Bill of Rights, it sold at $240,000 (£173,915). Formerly in the Streeter collections (sold by Sotheby’s in 1967), it was last offered Baltimore Book Auctions in 1997, when the price was $90,000.

Catalogued as a vibrant and luminous example in the publisher’s portfolio was a set of the 15 chromolitho plates produced by Louis Prang from Thomas Moran’s original paintings and published in Boston in 1876 as The Yellowstone National Park….

Containing a few pages of descriptive notes by Ferdinand Hayden, leader of the 1871 US Geological Survey of the region on which Moran had served as expedition artist, this was essentially a collection of rare prints.

Limited to around 1000 sets, this spectacular work was originally priced at $60, but complete sets of the broadsheet plates are now rarely seen and this example made $220,000 (£159,420).

That sum has only once been bettered at auction – by the Snider copy, which in 2005 made $320,000 at Christie’s New York.