Early edition of US Declaration of Independence to go on sale

·3 min read

Historical document is part of an auction of the private library of antiquarian book dealer William S Reese

One of the earliest contemporary broadside editions of the Declaration of Independence is to go on sale later this year as part of an auction of the private library of William S Reese, the most prominent antiquarian book dealer of his generation.

The collection of “Bill” Reese, including printed works, historic prints, fine art and colour-plate books, will be among the most valuable sales of printed Americana in over 50 years, Christie’s said, giving it a “conservative” pre-sale estimate of $12m-$18m.

The edition of the Declaration of Independence is likely the first edition printed in New England, and matches almost exactly the typesetting used for the edition printed in the 16 July 1776 issue of the American Gazette.

Only six copies are recorded extant, with four housed in institutions including Georgetown University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Peabody Essex Museum. It is estimated to sell for between $1m and $1.5m.

Christina Geiger, head of the books and manuscripts department at Christie’s New York, said seeing Reese’s private library for the first time “was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life”.

She added: “The books and artwork so clearly embody Bill’s passion for history, evidenced in both written and visual culture. The library was a special place of both sanctuary and adventure, of intellectual rigour and humour, of grandeur and approachability – all these elements held in exquisite balance with exceptional taste.”

Born in 1955, Reese was a seminal figure in antiquarian Americana with a keen interest in natural history, government and politics, travel and literature. He founded the William Reese Company of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1979, and over the next 40 years, the company became the leader in the Americana market.

The antiquarian books firm was situated adjacent to the Yale University campus and housed more than 18,000 items. Reese also worked closely with Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library to shape its Americana collections. In 1998, he established the Reese Fellowship in the Print Culture of the Americas, which has offered research grants to more than 150 scholars.

Other highlights from the auction include a copy of Paul Revere’s 1770 engraving of the Boston Massacre (estimated at $250,000 to $300,000), a first edition of John Smith’s “General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles” from 1624 ($300,000 to $500,000), and rare editions of John James Audubon and Herman Melville.

A series of themed live and online auctions will be held in New York beginning on 25 May, and highlights from the collection will be unveiled to the public at an exhibition that opened on Thursday and runs until 28 January, marking the first time in over 30 years that any portion of the current collection has been publicly exhibited.

• The headline of this article was changed on 18 January 2022. The original incorrectly said the item was the earliest edition of the Declaration of Independence. It is not, but it is probably the first edition printed in New England.

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