Scarce Declaration of Independence Early Printing Sells For Record $3.36 Million At Auction

One of the most important documents in American history reeled in millions of dollars at auction on Wednesday. An early printing of the Declaration of Independence sold for a record $3.36 million at Sotheby’s. The document is one of only five known copies of a special newspaper-broadside hybrid, printed within a week of the famous first edition broadside by John Dunlap.

The Declaration of Independence copy, the only known one in private hands, hit estimates as Sotheby’s valued the document between $2.5 million and $5 million. According to cllct.com, this was the most ever publicly paid for a non-Dunlap broadside.

 

Copy of the Declaration of Independence
Copy of the Declaration of Independence. (credit: Sotheby’s)

“Broadside-formatted printing of the Declaration of Independence (473 x 302 mm) on the entirety of the third page of the July 11, 1776, issue John Holt’s New-York Journal; or, The General Advertiser, No. 1749, 4 pages on a bifolium of laid paper, the full paper with the imprint New-York: Printed by John Holt, at the Printing-Office near the Coffee-House, Thursday, July 11, 1776; the leaves cleanly separated at central fold, some light soiling and staining, minor marginal chipping and tears, a few very short fold separations, a little thinning or light abrasion to the paper in the lower portion of the second column costing bits of about five words, some occasional very skillful repair,” Sotheby’s writes in the description lot.

The Declaration of Independence printing appeared in the July 11, 1776 issue of The New-York Journal, published by John Holt. Unlike many other newspapers of the time that treated the Declaration as just another news item, Holt seemed to grasp the monumental importance of the document. He devoted the entire third page of his paper to the Declaration, setting it in an attractive double-column layout surrounded by decorative borders.

Holt didn’t just print the Declaration as a normal newspaper article. He had a grander vision in mind. On the facing page, Holt included a note to his readers, marked with a little pointing finger symbol, known as a manicule. The note suggested that readers might want to “separate it from the rest of the paper, and fix it up, in open view, in their Houses, as a mark of their approbation of the Independent Spirit of their Representatives.”

Copy of the Declaration of Independence
Copy of the Declaration of Independence. (credit: Sotheby’s)

Holt was encouraging his subscribers to turn this page of the newspaper into a sort of do-it-yourself Declaration poster. It was a clever way to spread the revolutionary message far and wide, turning each reader’s home into a mini museum of American independence.

The rarity of this particular printing suggests that many of Holt’s readers took him up on his suggestion. Of course, when British troops landed in New York City later that summer, displaying such a document would have been downright dangerous, which might also explain why so few copies survived.

When the Continental Congress met in May 1776, declaring independence wasn’t a foregone conclusion. There was heated debate, with some delegates still hoping for reconciliation with Britain. It took passionate arguments from firebrands like John Adams to push the idea forward.

Copy of the Declaration of Independence
Copy of the Declaration of Independence. (credit: Sotheby’s)

Once the decision was made, Thomas Jefferson was chosen to draft the actual Declaration. He didn’t come up with the ideas from scratch, though. Jefferson drew on existing documents like Virginia’s Bill of Rights and his own draft of a Virginia Constitution. His goal, as he later wrote, was “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.”

After some revisions by Adams and Benjamin Franklin — and a notable deletion of Jefferson’s criticism of the slave trade to appease Southern delegates — Congress approved the Declaration on July 4, 1776. That very night, Dunlap printed the first broadsides — single-sheet prints meant for wide distribution.

Holt’s newspaper-broadside hybrid came just a week later, making it one of the earliest printings of the Declaration. It’s part of a select group of 17 printings issued by July 11, mostly clustered in Pennsylvania and neighboring states.

What sets Holt’s version apart is its unique combination of newspaper and broadside formats. It provided readers with the full text of the Declaration in a displayable format, while also offering context through other news stories of the day. These included reports on military engagements, political addresses, and even an account of New Yorkers tearing down a statue of King George III.

Copy of the Declaration of Independence
Copy of the Declaration of Independence. (credit: Sotheby’s)

This wasn’t the only historical American artifact that was sold at Sotheby’s on Wednesday. The first publication of the U.S. Constitution went for $1.02 million and the only known handbill printing of the Bill of Rights netted $1.2 million.

HobbyListings editor Matt Higgins contributed to this report.

Leave a Reply