May 25: Landmark Abolitionist Material and Americana at Sotheby's New York
- by Thomas C. McKinney
Highlighted Americans from Sotheby's Two Centuries of American History: Highly Important Letters and Documents
It's not often the autographs of nearly a quarter of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence are available in a single sale. Implausibly, this fact isn't even the biggest story of said sale. No, for the price of all those autographs, you would not even begin to approach the low estimate for the stars of the show. May 25th, 2016 is a landmark date for the Americana field, and even more so for the abolitionist specialty. With 94 lots assembled under the title Two Centuries of American History: Highly Important Letters and Documents, Sotheby's has assembled some of the rarest and most impeccable American material in recent memory. Being a concentrated sale, there is no reason not to browse the catalog and fantasize about some of the famous material or choose a few (slightly) lower profile items to bid on. It should be noted however, the catalog is currently unavailable online, but will be released soon. Rare Book Hub was provided an early copy in order to write this review courtesy of Sotheby's.
The Emancipation Proclamation's rank among the most important political events in American history is debatable. Its presence among the top is not. Printings of it from the year of the proclamation (1863) are rare, but not usually on an unspeakable level—there are approximately thirty appearances of it in various forms in the RBH Transaction History. And in fact the copy appearing for sale this month was not printed in 1863, but the following year. This is not a normal printing. This is not a War Department printing, nor a newspaper article reprint, nor a facsimile. Lot 78 is the "Authorized Edition," certified by the President's Private Secretary John Nicolay to be a "A true copy, with autograph signatures of the President and the Secretary of State," and it is indeed signed by President Lincoln and William H. Seward. Other than the original copy which remains in the National Archives, this is the edition to end all editions. It does not come to sale often. Twenty-six or twenty-seven—sources claim either of these two numbers—exist, with nineteen in institution hands. In the RBH Transaction History a single copy appears, dating to a Sotheby Parke Bernet sale in 1976. This particular example was obtained at Sotheby's in 1989 in a sale RBH does not have priced records for. Even with other items bearing estimates above $100,000, the Authorized Edition of the Emancipation Proclamation's estimate of $1,500,000-2,000,000 would likely carry more than 50% of the entire auction. This would be the case if there were not another Lincoln item estimated even higher...
If there are two (obtainable) items topping the list in the dreams of of every collector of American abolitionism, the preceding edition of the Emancipation Proclamation is one of them. The other? Look no further than lot 79. Somehow, lot 79 one-ups the preceding lot by being even more rare. The "Senate" manuscript copy of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, signed by President Lincoln, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, Secretary of State John W. Forney, and thirty-six of thirty-eight Senators who voted for passage, claims the rarified air of there being only three known copies. For an estimated $2,000,000-3,000,000, it can be yours.