Friday, September 23, 2011

A Copy of The Emancipation Proclamation on the Auction Block

A copy of the Emancipation Proclamation once owned by Robert F. Kennedy sold for $3.7 million, setting a record for presidential documents.

The Emancipation Proclamation- the document signed by Lincoln that freed the slaves in 1863. Purchased by Robert F. Kennedy for $9500 in 1964, it was sold today to an anonymous buyer for $3.7 million

cartoon of the Emancipation Proclamation

The copy of the Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the item with the most storied provenance. Kennedy, a collector of American historical documents, purchased his copy in 1964. While the official document is in the National Archives, additional authorized printings were published and signed by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War era.

First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

The president signed several copies to assist the fund-raising efforts of the United States Sanitary Commission, a charity established in 1861 for the benefit of Union soldiers. The commission held a series of fairs in American cities, including Brooklyn. Merchandise was donated, and the funds raised from the sales went mainly to hospitals and to improve camp conditions for soldiers.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Among the items sold at the fairs were documents autographed by prominent figures, notably Lincoln. “Sanitary fairs would request something to be sold. Facsimile copies were made as souvenirs,” said Illinois state historian Thomas F. Schwartz , the director of research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

President Barack Obama viewing the Emancipation Proclamation

For the Chicago fair of 1863, Lincoln autographed and donated an original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The patron who bought it—for $3,000—then donated it to the Chicago Soldier’s Home, but it was lost in the Chicago fire of 1871. In 1864, two sets of publishers decided to create copies of the Emancipation Proclamation. An abridged and decorated version was published in San Francisco in 1864. And for the 1864 fair in Philadelphia, a full-text version was printed by George Henry Boker and Charles Godfrey Leland.
President Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

A total of 48 copies were made by Boker and Leland, who sold them at a price tag of $10 each. Not all were bought; some were donated to institutions. According to Sotheby’s research, of those 48 copies, 18 are currently in institutions, including the Brooklyn Historical Society and the New-York Historical Society. Six copies are in private collections—in addition to the Kennedy copy that sold Friday.

The Emancipation Proclamation on display in Washington, DC

As with any object at auction, the provenance adds significance, but the Kennedy ownership introduces an even greater variable. The document hung for years in Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s Hickory Hill estate, outside of Washington, D.C. “This was his most significant purchase. This was a big step for him as a collector,” said Selby Kiffer, specialist in historic American manuscripts and senior vice president at Sotheby’s.

Sotheby's sale of Robert Kennedy's copy of the Emancipation Proclamation

Two years ago, Sotheby’s facilitated a private sale of a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation for $1 milllion. (source: The Wall Street Journal)

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