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George Washington’s annotated Constitution fetches almost $10 million

Shatters world auction record

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“The title page has a wonderful, large, bold signature. I’ve seen enough of Washington’s writing over the years to almost immediately tell whether one is real or not,” said Chris Cooper, who was charged with authenticating the book. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)

Having set a world record, George Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution is heading home.

A book containing Washington’s annotated Constitution and a draft of the Bill of Rights was purchased for almost $10 million by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in an auction Friday at Christie’s in New York.

Printed and bound in 1789, the book featuring Washington’s signature on the title page sold for a winning bid of $9,826,500 — an amount the venerable auction house said was a world auction record for an American book or historical document.

Part of Washington’s original private library at Mount Vernon, the book will once again be housed at the historic Virginia estate as part of the collection at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, currently under construction and set to open next fall.

“Washington himself once wrote, ‘the Constitution is our guide, which I will never abandon,’ ” Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association regent Ann Bookout said in a statement. “By acquiring this book — his personal copy of the Constitution — we are taking him quite literally.

“It is extremely rare to see a book of such significance change hands, and we felt that it was essential to muster our resources to bring this extraordinary document home.”

While the book was expected to sell for as much as $3 million, a bidding war between the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and an unidentified party drove up the cost.

The final price dwarfs the previous known high for a Washington item, $3.2 million, paid at a 2009 auction for a 1787 letter written by Washington to his nephew and heir Bushrod Washington about the Constitution.

The book’s previous owner, Pennsylvania businessman and Colonial art collector H. Richard Dietrich Jr., purchased it at a 1964 auction for $27,000, about $200,000 in today’s dollars.

Thomas Lecky, head of Christie’s books and manuscripts division, said before Friday’s sale that the auction house expected the book to do “extremely well.”

“Many of the great foundational works of the country are already in institutions and collections,” Mr. Lecky said. “A book from Washington’s library infrequently comes on the market. And in this case, the text itself is so important. It shows [Washington] thinking about what the powers of the very first president were going to be and what his responsibilities would be.

“It’s unique. There’s no direct comparable — you can’t find another copy of the Constitution that he annotated and marked up.”

A 106-page leather-bound volume, the book contains a record of the first session of Congress — the ratified Constitution, a 12-amendment draft of the Bill of Rights and acts creating the executive, state and treasury departments. Pasted atop its inside cover, or “bookplate,” is a custom print of Washington’s family crest, which the first president reserved for the most important books in his library.

Next to the elements of the Constitution that outline executive duties and powers, including signing and vetoing laws, controlling the Army and Navy and periodically giving Congress information on the state of the union, Washington drew vertical brackets and neatly penciled in “president,” “president powers” and “required.”

“It was a working document for him,” said Julie Miller, a historian with the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.

While Washington wanted to preserve his private library — which consisted of 800 to 1,000 books and thousands of letters and other documents — he was unable to finish construction of a separate building at Mount Vernon prior to his death in 1799.

During subsequent decades, Washington’s heirs sold or gave away many of his books and papers, while family friends and other visitors to Mount Vernon essentially plundered the estate for souvenirs.

Jared Sparks, a Harvard historian who published the 12 volumes of “The Writings of George Washington” between 1833 and 1839, famously “borrowed” and later gave away hundreds of Washington’s documents to politicians and influential people.

“There were different ideas about preservation and what was important in the 19th century,” said Mary Thompson, a Mount Vernon historian. “It was pretty important to have a little piece of Washington.

“You would find family members cutting up pieces of Washington’s hair and giving to each other. Or pieces of Martha Washington’s dress. We still get back pieces of Washington’s original coffin.”

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About the Author
Patrick Hruby

Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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