Published: July 4, 2000
Opening bids began at $4 million. Activity was expected to hit a high close of $6 million, when a sudden flurry of eleventh-hour competition pushed the price to its peak of more than $8 million. The Associated Press named the consignor as Visual Equities, a fine-art investment firm based in Atlanta. The document was purchased by Norman Lear, television writer/producer, and Internet entrepreneur and philanthropist David Hayden.
“Most American kids and their families will never get to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to see that single sheet of paper announcing the birth of the United States of America,” said Lear in a Sotheby’s press release. “We are not collectors but citizens who simply want to share this precious symbol of democracy with the American people. It is our hope to take this copy of the Declaration of Independence to cities and towns across the country.” Lear and Hayden intend to mount a nationwide tour to exhibit the Declaration and stage a “contemporary, for-love-of-country theatrical production that will entertain, educate and inspire.”
Lear and Hayden will loan the Declaration to People for the American Way Foundation, a 300,000-member civil rights and liberties organization that Lear founded 20 years ago.
The Declaration was originally printed in 1776 and serves as the legal foundation of the United States. The example sold at sothebys.com was one of only 25 copies extant and is from Dunlap’s very first printing, which took place on the evening of July 4, 1776. John Dunlap was the original printer of Jefferson’s text and ran off broadsides of the Declaration for the Continental Congress. Only four copies are owned by private collectors. The others reside in the collections of museums and public institutions.
Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration stood for more than the formal separation of the colonies from England: It was to become the guide for democratic societies around the world. While the words “all men are created equal” and the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” may sound trivial and self-evident in this new millenium, in 1776 those words were truly revolutionary.
The story behind the present copy’s rediscovery is nearly as extraordinary as the document itself. In 1989, a Philadelphia man was browsing at a country flea market in Pennsylvania and decided to buy an old torn painting for $4, thinking he could make use of the frame. After dismantling the frame at home he found it unusable. Behind the canvas, however, was a folded piece of paper. He recognized the document as the Declaration of Independence, but he imagined it to be a reproduction of little value. Nonetheless, he kept the paper and a few years later a friend convinced him to bring it to Sotheby’s for evaluation.
Sotheby’s executive vice president David Redden traveled to Pennsylvania to authenticate the document and recalls “it took one second to know it was right. Here was the most important single printed page in the world in the most spectacularly beautiful condition.”
The sale of the Declaration of Independence is a landmark auction for printed Americana at Sotheby’s. The previous record was $2.42 million in 1991 for another Dunlap broadside.
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