In a milestone of Internet auction history, one of the last privately owned original copies of the Declaration of Independence was sold to television producer and political activist Norman Lear for $7.4 million Thursday on sothebys.com, the online site of Sotheby’s New York-based auction house.
With Sotheby’s commission, the price came to a whopping $8.1 million, a record sum for an online auction and far more than the estimated selling price of $4 million to $6 million.
Lear, who was responsible for the seminal sitcom “All in the Family” in the 1970s, is also founder of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group that defends 1st Amendment freedoms and promotes democratic principles.
He was in New York and could not be reached for comment. The auction house did not identify him, but sources close to Lear confirmed that he was the buyer.
While the Internet has become a popular venue for auctions of relatively low-priced collectibles, Thursday’s sale of the Declaration of Independence was the most spectacular test of online auctions’ potential to date.
Calling the rare document “the most important printed piece of paper in the world,” David Redden, executive vice president of sothebys.com, said that offering it online instead of at a live auction was a serious business decision calculated to demonstrate that the Internet has become an effective way of selling immensely valuable property.
About 500 copies of the Declaration of Independence were produced in its first official printing, on July 4, 1776. The document sold on Thursday is one of 25 copies of that printing known to exist and one of only four in private hands. It was discovered in 1989, tucked into the backing of a tattered painting that was sold for $4 at a flea market in Adamstown, Pa. Visual Equities, a New York-based firm, purchased the manuscript for $2.4 million in a live auction at Sotheby’s New York in 1991 and recently consigned it to the online auction.
Bidding began at 9 a.m. and the first offer, of $4 million, came in two minutes later. The auction was scheduled to close at 5 p.m., when seven more bids had been received and the price had escalated to $5.1 million. But the allotted time was extended to allow competitors who had already placed bids to continue--and the action heated up. By 5:47 p.m., when the electronic gavel fell, 21 more bids had been received.
Sotheby’s launched its online site in early January. Until Thursday, the highest sum paid on the site was $88,000 for a 1518 book on hunting and fishing.
The top price commanded at sothebys.amazon.com, a joint venture of the auction house and amazon.com, is $331,000 for the central section of the Boston Celtics’ old parquet floor at Boston Gardens.