A copy of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” sold for $123,500 and an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition went for $28,750 - more than 11 times the cost of the trip itself.
But the original proclamation of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase sold for far less than the document’s estimated $1 million to $1.5 million value.
Hours after it failed to sell at an auction at Christie’s, two dealers stepped in and snapped up the historic 1803 proclamation, signed by thenPresident Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, at a bargain price of $772,500.
The pair suggested their transaction with Christie’s Inc. was almost as much of a steal as Jefferson’s deal with Napoleon Bonaparte.
“They blew it, and I think we got away with a fantastic deal,” exulted W. Graham Arader III, a Manhattan manuscripts dealer. “It’s an unbelievable buy,” added his partner, William Reese, of New Haven, Conn.
The beribboned, 18-page document, bearing the Great Seal of the United States, was the top prize in the collection offered for sale by Jane Engelhard, widow of Charles Engelhard, who dealt in precious metals and other commodities.
Jefferson’s deal - a million square miles of French-claimed land at 4 cents an acre - more than doubled the size of the fledgling United States and has been called history’s greatest real estate bargain.
Spain, facing colonial troubles, had secretly ceded the vast region to France, whose renewed ambitions in North America so worried Jefferson that he jumped at Napoleon Bonaparte’s willingness to sell it for $15 million.
“The Louisiana Purchase was probably the most significant achievement of Jefferson as president,” said Chris Coover, Christie’s top manuscript expert, after the bidding failed.
Arader and Reese, in a telephone interview, said they waited until the bidding was suspended by Christie’s auctioneer Stephen Massey at $750,000, then negotiated the deal on their own.
The pair said Christie’s had set a secret minimum price of $900,000 on the manuscript, but in the end settled for less.
Coover said Christie’s had unsuccessfully tried to enlist institutions or private buyers willing to donate or lend the proclamation to the National Archives, which owns the Declaration of Independence, the original U.S. Constitution and other major historical documents.
Arader and Reese said they too would try to find a public-spirited buyer.
Only four manuscripts have sold for more than $1 million, Coover said: the so-called Leonardo Codex, bought by computer magnate Bill Gates last year for $30.8 million; a fragment of Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech, $1.54 million; Lincoln’s 1864 Second Inaugural address, $1.32 million, and an article by Albert Einstein on his theory of relativity, $1.15 million.