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A crowd-funded group lost an auction for a first edition of the U.S. Constitution

A copy from the first printing of the U.S. Constitution sold for more than $43 million Thursday night — a world record for a historical document at auction, Sotheby's said.
Yuki Iwamura
AFP via Getty Images
A copy from the first printing of the U.S. Constitution sold for more than $43 million Thursday night — a world record for a historical document at auction, Sotheby's said.

An unprecedented crowd-funded attempt to buy an extremely rare copy of the U.S. Constitution fell just short Thursday night, when a group of more than 17,000 people who had pooled their money were outbid in an auction for the historical document.

The Constitution sold for $43.2 million, setting a new record for the most ever paid for a book, historical document or printed text, according to Sotheby's, which handled the sale. The winning bid more than doubled the top estimate of $20 million the Constitution had been expected to garner.

In Thursday night's auction, Sotheby's said the group called ConstitutionDAO was locked in "an eight-minute bidding battle on the telephones" with an unidentified rival, as Sotheby's representatives conferred with bidders and repeatedly raised their hands to send the winning bid higher and higher. The auction house did not disclose the name of the winning bidder.

"While this wasn't the outcome we hoped for, we still made history tonight," the leaders of ConstitutionDAO said in a message to donors. "This is the largest crowdfund for a physical object that we are aware of—crypto or fiat. We are so incredibly grateful to have done this together with you all and are still in shock that we even got this far."

ConstitutionDAO amassed more than $40 million in a matter of days, thanks to the donations of strangers — many of whom professed their affection for cryptocurrency and the cinematic works of Nicolas Cage, star of National Treasure.

The median donation was $206.26, the group said. It will now refund those donations, minus transaction fees.

The document sold Thursday night was printed in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787 — the last day of the Constitutional Convention that was presided over by George Washington and was attended by delegates such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Only 500 copies of the Constitution were created in that first printing; the one sold Thursday night is one of just 13 surviving copies. Only two copies are known to exist outside of institutional collections.

ConstitionDAO had planned to find "an esteemed partner to publicly display the Constitution," preferably in a setting that would be free to the public and able to take on the expense and logistical hurdles of hosting the historical document.

In the end, the organizers said they're happy to see the enthusiasm that quickly gathered around the project. They also noted that it has helped to educate more people about cryptocurrency, as well as offering insights into the world of historical curation and art auctions.

The DAO in the bidding group's name refers to a decentralized autonomous organization that, like cryptocurrency, operates by using blockchain technology. Earlier this year, a DAO successfully purchased the only copy of the Wu-Tang Clan's album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, for $4 million.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.