George Washington’s copy of a book containing the Constitution with his annotations and legislative actions taken by the new U.S. Congress sold for $9.8 million at Christie’s today.
The sale set a record for a Washington document, far exceeding the presale top estimate of $3 million.
Ann Bookout, regent of the board of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns and operates Washington’s historic home, placed the winning bid, beating about half a dozen hopefuls in the room and on the phone.
“We are thrilled to bring this extraordinary book that belonged to George Washington back to Mount Vernon where it belongs,” Bookout said in a press conference following the sale.
The book will be the centerpiece of Washington’s new presidential library, Bookout said, adding that it will open in 2013.
Washington received the 106-page volume in 1789, his first year in office as U.S. president. It recorded the momentous first session of Congress, March 4 to Sept. 29 that year, and includes the ratified Constitution, the draft Bill of Rights and acts establishing the executive, state, judiciary and treasury departments.
“There was an enormous number of acts passed,” said Ron Chernow, author of “Washington: A Life,” in a telephone interview. “The Constitution is a short document and very vague. The first Congress was busy putting flesh on the bones.”
Coat of Arms
The title page has Washington’s large signature and on another page is a bookplate bearing his motto, “Exitus acta probat” (“the end justifies the deed”), and his family coat of arms.
Washington put brackets around key passages concerning the president’s responsibilities and wrote the words “President” and “powers” in the margin.
“He was trying to figure out what was his power, what was the Congress’s power,” Chernow said. “Washington knew that as the first president, he would be the first person to be implementing the Constitution. He was so eager to get it right and so anxious not to get it wrong.”
The book comes from the estate of H. Richard Dietrich Jr., a collector of Americana, who bought it at auction for $27,000 in 1964. It had previously belonged to Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington and William Randolph Hearst.
The previous record for a Washington document was his 1787 letter to his nephew on the ratification of the Constitution, which sold for $3.2 million in 2009.
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