Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2021 Issue

Second Highest Price Ever Paid for a Declaration of Independence

Charles Carroll's copy of the Declaration of Independence sold at Freeman's. (Freeman's photo).

Records were set at Freeman's auction in anticipation of July 4 when a copy of the Declaration of Independence sold for over $4 million. According to Freeman's, that was the highest aucrion price ever paid for a 19th century document (not including books) and the second highest price ever paid for a Declaration of Independence. Americana is back!

 

Perhaps the surprising fact about a second highest price ever for a Declaration of Independence is that it was also the highest priced document of the 19th century. Wasn't it signed in the 18th century, all the way back in 1776? This cannot be a first edition nor anything close to it. It wasn't.

 

This copy was printed in 1823, 47 years after the original was created. In 1820, then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned facsimile copies of the Declaration. The commission to engrave and print a plate of the copy was given to William J. Stone. The Declaration was already experiencing deterioration by then, hence Adams' desire to have facsimile copies made. However, whatever process Stone used made it fade even more, so that his printings are the clearest copies of the original document in existence today, and is what is used for reproductions you might find in textbooks.

 

Adams commissioned 201 copies, of which around 50 are known to still exist. This is not an ordinary Stone copy. Among those Adams determined would receive copies, two each to be exact, were all surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence. That did not require many copies. By the time these were printed, there were only three signers left, Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the not as well known Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Carroll is known for being the only Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence and for one other thing. Jefferson and John Adams died in one of the greatest coincidences in American history. Both died on July 4, 1776, exactly 50 years to the day after it was first ratified. That made Carroll the last surviving signer. He lived until November 14, 1832, age 95, and 56 years after he signed the document, the only signer to survive more than 50 years later.

 

Carroll was a large land owner in Maryland, one of the wealthiest men in the colonies before the Revolution. You might think such a person would be a loyalist but he was anything but. He argued against colonial rule, recognizing that ultimately, only revolution would free the colonies. He was selected to the Continental Congress of 1776, hence his becoming a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He later served in the Maryland Senate and the U.S. Senate representing his home state.

 

Adams' two copies of Stone's printing today reside with the Massachusetts Historical Society. Jefferson's two copies were dispersed among his family and their whereabouts today is unknown. Carroll's two copies passed to his granddaughter, Emily Caton, and her husband, John MacTavish. MacTavish gave one of those copies to the Maryland Historical Society (now Maryland Center for History and Culture) in 1844. The other? That was unknown for 177 years, until...

 

What it was doing in those 177 years is uncertain, but can be surmised. It was rediscovered by Cathy Marsden, a Rare Books Specialist at British auction house Lyon & Turnbull, while going through papers in the attic of a home in Scotland. She explained, “It was a wonderful surprise to find the Stone facsimile unknowingly hidden in the family home. What at first glance appeared to be an unassuming old document nestled within a pile of papers, has turned out to be a fascinating and important piece of American history.”

 

But, how did Carroll's copy end up in Scotland? That is unknown for certain, but one can imagine based on his grandson-in-law's name, “MacTavish.” He was actually a British consul in Maryland when he married Carroll's granddaughter, with ancestors back in Scotland. It is therefore not that surprising that it would end up where it did. Lyon & Turnbull did not reveal who the seller was, their wishing to remain anonymous, so we can't say whether that person was a descendant of the MacTavish family. What we can say confidently is that somewhere along the way, the owners lost track of the document, or at least its significance, so that they had no idea they had something valuable, let alone worth millions of dollars. We also can say that it made one more trip, back to America. Lyon & Turnbull and Freeman's have a cooperative arrangement so that the sale was held in the more logical location, Philadelphia, U.S.A., home to Freeman's.

 

The final price, after furious bidding by several parties on July 1, was $4,420,000. This number was a surprise, even to Freeman's, which put an estimate of $500,000-$800,000 on it. The buyer has chosen to remain anonymous. This price for a Declaration of Independence was second only to a first printing by John Dunlap on the night of July 4-5, 1776. One of those sold in 2000 for $8.1 million.

Rare Book Monthly

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