eBay: Innocents Abroad
Image 1 as it appeared on eBay
A recent article in Kingston, New York’s daily newspaper, the Freeman about an early  copy of the New York State Constitution offered on eBay ignited the passions of members of the Ulster County Bar Association on short notice to come up with the money to bid for this locally important rarity. Kingston, the state’s first capital, was where the final draft was written and debated and where the constitution was ultimately adopted in April 1777. For the historically minded, particularly residents of the Hudson Valley, Kingston remains an important place. The opening and winning bid: $6,500.
The spirit motivating the purchase was magnificent but the copy, upon examination, disappointing, the cover in facsimile and many of its pages water stained. In a traditional auction, perhaps as close-by as the JMW Auction Galleries a few miles from the Ulster County Courthouse where the item’s purchasers plan to display it, it might have been estimated at $1,500 to $2,000. A much better [and complete] copy sold at auction in New York at Bloomsbury in 2007, at the top of the market, for $5,474 and prices generally (though not all) have since fallen 20%. Incomplete copies rarely do well and almost never better than complete ones. They also do better at traditional auction than they do on eBay so the recent sale is puzzling.
This pamphlet is absolutely rare although it is not the first printing of the New-York constitution in 1777. The first printing occurred months earlier in Fish-kill. Copies of this second printing [Philadelphia] are recorded three times in the 20th century and the OCLC, the database of library holdings, lists fourteen examples in institutions. In the AED we identify three sales over the years. Its probability of reappearance is 25+ years. On line, a clean and more complete copy is listed at $15,000. This is the same copy sold at auction in 2007. Incomplete copies are worth less, often much less and you don’t often see them in the auction records because auction houses turn them down. Partial copies often don’t sell well.
eBay: Innocents Abroad
Internal pages 4 and 5 as they appear on eBay
The Fish-kill printing, although more common is an icon, the Philadelphia imprint a rare second edition. Ebay was in fact the perfect venue for offering this copy because sellers can post what they want for what they want. In this case it was very effective. That it caught the attention of the Freemen and through them was publicized with little time to spare meant that interested parties had no time to prepare. A few men then seized the moment, in much the same way that patriots in Kingston, in the midst of revolution two hundred and thirty-four years ago with their community in danger, planned for a future they could only dimly conceive. In time that and in time this will work out. The pamphlet will never be a good copy but should stand as a talisman of good intentions and public spirit.
As to how a difficult [this means impaired] copy achieved such a high price the article in the Freeman, quoting the seller, may have tipped the scales. He is quoted as saying:
It is one of only four known copies in existence, said Stanley Klos, president of the not-for-profit organization Forgotten Founders.”
“We know there were 200 printed in Fishkill,” Klos said. “(Original copies) turn up from time to time. Right now, there’s four known 1777 copies in existence.”
There are more copies than that absolutely.
In a response, Mr. Klos acknowledged the error in the Freeman article about the number of copies in existence. The correct description is copies known to exist in private hands, of which he said, the number is actually three. It is not clear whether the error was made in Mr. Klos' statement or the Freeman's transcription. Mr. Klos offered to cancel the transaction if the buyers so chose.
The buyers of course do not intend to resell and that’s a good thing as it’s unlikely to attract another bid at this level anytime soon. Someday if offered through a traditional auction house the obligation to describe and estimate accurately for the protection of buyer and seller suggest the census of copies will be carefully confirmed, the material appropriately described, and the estimates set conservatively. eBay is a wonderful marketplace but the sign over the door is or should be caveat emptor. There the seller describes while at traditional auctions a licensed third party sorts out the details. In this case the eBay listing was clear enough. The problem was in the Freeman story and some of the quotes attributed to the seller. This item is simply not so rare or valuable in its impaired condition. Then again, a copy of the Fish-kill printing, the first edition, would be very nice. In the AED the current value is $11,292.25, the probability of reappearance 25 years +, its purchase a meaningful contribution to local history.
eBay: Innocents Abroad
Internal Pages 6 and 7 as they appeared on eBay
In the buzz and excitement of an expiring offer it is easy to forget the other sign that often looms on eBay: all sales final. For those who go to bars and/or buy collectible books this is why aspirin was invented.
Looking ahead to a future auction house offering of the recently acquired copy the house will have two choices in how to describe it, tongue in cheek or hard-nosed.
But for the title page lacking for reasons obscured by history an otherwise almost complete copy of the first Philadelphia printing of the New York State Constitution. Uniquely marked by an ancient liquid, possibly water, leaving discernable evidence for future generations to ponder.
An incomplete copy, lacking the title page, with water damage throughout.
Auction houses or dealers will inevitably choose the second approach. What altered the process in this transaction was the story in the Kingston Freeman that included statements not mentioned in the eBay description. According to the follow-up article in the Freeman the buyers learned of the item from reading the paper. Whether their thinking was effected by it is unknown.
So it’s a cautionary tale suggesting you read your newspaper for the news and consult experts or databases if venturing into collectible material. Important material is usually sold by dealers or by traditional auctions that carefully examine and explain condition and estimates. A common novice collector error is to underestimate the importance of missing leaves and discoloration. That the purchase was made with the best civic intentions makes this all the more disappointing.
eBay: Innocents Abroad
Internal pages 10 and 11 as they appeared on eBay
American Exchange March 30, 2011
Dear Mr. McKinney:
Thank you for forwarding me a copy of your “Kingston Constitution” article for accuracy comments by March 31st.
In terms of accuracy, I make the following corrections:
· The document is not a fragment; it is complete with exception of the cover;
· I did not realize the document sold in 2007 for $5,474 was the same currently being offered for $15,000 by The Reese Co. I, therefore, was mistaken when I said “we can only find four known copies in private hands” I should have said, “we can only find three known copies in private hands.”
· The Printing owned by The Reese Co. and offered for $15,000 is also water stained;
· According to Worldcat.org, the 1777 "Constitution of the State of New-York" published with the Declaration of Independence and printed and sold by Styner and Cist, is in the holdings of the following 11 libraries, worldwide: The Library of Congress (Washington, DC), The Law Library at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), The William Clements Library at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), Columbia University Law School’s Diamond Law Library (New York, NY), The New York Public Library (New York, NY), The New-York Historical Society Archives (New York, NY), Yale University’s Sterling Law Library (New Haven, CT), Harvard University Houghton Library (Cambridge, MA), New York State Library (Albany, NY),Wisconsin Historical Society (Madison, WI) National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh). Sadly, neither White Plains nor Fishkill, nor Kingston (all where the NY Constitution was formulated) houses one of these rare printings.
· As for the 200 copies being printed at Fishkill: it was apparently confusion on the part of the reporter (hearing my answer) or my part (perhaps misunderstanding her question). In the course of a lengthy cell phone conversation a few days before my oldest sons wedding, I know we discussed the first printing of the DOI being Dunlap and not including NY, and selling recently for $8.1 million; that approximately 200 of those were printed, with 25 known presently and 1 in private hands. I recall discussing why more copies of the DOI &NY Constitution were not printed in Fishkill. I recall discussing why the there was a need to go to Philadelphia for a larger and second 1777 printing. Unlike the omission of “in private hands” above, I do not see why this would misquote would have a bearing on the auction.
o The document sold on eBay was clearly represented as the later 1777 Philadelphia printing and not the Fishkill printing.
o The Newspaper Article you quote also clearly indicates it was the Philadelphia Printing.
· As for “eBay: all sales final” this is absolutely not accurate. In fact all our sales of autographs and Historical Documents are guaranteed as described and come with a full money back COA.
In addition to the above, you make a sweeping claim that documents of this caliber have dropped 20% since 2007. I beg to differ, at least with respect to the US documents that are in my area of expertise and interest. For instance, I wish we had held onto our two William J. Stone DOI printings until after 2006 because Christies sold a DOI for over 698K in 2009 three years after ours was auctioned off for under 250K. If I am not mistaken, the recent sale of the Emancipation Proclamation printing broke all records in 2010 at an astounding $3,778,500, and I turned down one that sold for $688,000 in a 2005 Christies Auction. Moreover the Federalist Papers along with Lewis and Clark printings have also increased in auction value since 2007. Also in 2010, James Naismith’s original rules for basketball broke a record for any sports artifact, selling for $4,338,500 (had to through that in being a former NCAA Elite 8 and Italian Basketball player). What about Spiderman’s debut comic selling at $1.1 million this past month? (I am a big fan.) Did you write the buyers in these sales, as well, to make a case that they had paid too much?
Yes, I am perturbed by both your remarks and the negative aspersions you have cast on my business practices, but I do appreciate the opportunity to respond. Bruce, despite your tone, I do believe that your intentions are good, and not designed merely to obtain PR by bashing eBay while promoting your website and clientele’s ephemera auction sites. I accept that you are trying to protect the Ulster County Bar Association’s good efforts to acquire this 1777 printing at what you believe to be an unreasonable market price. As I explained to the purchaser yesterday, when he relayed orally the content of your article, you do not have to buy it, I will just cancel the sale.
Ulster County can wait 25 years (as you suggest) for a Fishkill printing or pay $8500 more NOW to get the Philadelphia printing from the Reese Co. with a cover and fewer water stains (which, as you know, can be treated by many good conservators for a fraction of $8500). Or Ulster County can wait, perhaps, 15 years, to get a less expensive printing of the 1: New York Resolutions leading to the DOI, 2: The DOI, 3: The Resolution Approving DOI making it Unanimous, 4: The NY State Constitution all in another 1777 Styner and Cist publication.
How you manage to come up with $2317 as a value for a 1777 US DOI printing plus the NY Constitution when Gentleman’s Magazine Copies of the DOI sell regularly for 3,000 - 4000 is beyond my reasoning. As a historian familiar with the pricing of US DOI 1776-1777 printings (you don’t know, by the way, of a 1777 Goddard for Sale?) I view this printing as a sleeper when you consider content and date. And with the US 250th Birthday only 15 years away and the NY Constitution printing birth date 16 years away how could this possible be a bad investment?
Perhaps even more significantly for the historian of American and legal affairs, the document under consideration tells the story of John Jay, ultimately our first Chief Justice, who led the NY provincial Congress in approving the Declaration of Independence on July 9th, 1776, thus finally making the decision of the colonies Unanimous. He, of course, drafted this New York State constitution. What people do not realize is that he did not return to Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776, because he was too busy formulating the government of the State of New York.
Given all these considerations, had this pamphlet, despite its missing cover, been sent to a conservator for treatment and then placed in a Sotheby’s or Chrisities’ auction, It would have blown out of the water all your valuation analysis because they are based on second and third string auction data. This pamphlet has not had the exposure of either of the two big auction houses that I can determine and consequently, in this exhibitor’s opinion, greatly undervalued. Your higher valuation of Fishkill versus Philadelphia is also debatable as it can be argued the full printing of the DOI and NY’s approval makes this a nationally significant document rather than one of just state significance. It stands to reason, therefore, that the public given a nationally marketed auction may deem the Philadelphia printing, the DOI’s birthplace, more desirable than an obscure town called Fishkill (a different shade of Spiderman type popularity).
I wonder if 80 year old baby boomers will still be paying over a million dollars for Spiderman in 2026 on the 250th USA birthday . Will anyone even know who Betty Boop -- excuse me, I mean Spiderman – is at our 300th in 2076? This rare printing, however, will endure as long as this nation stands.
Since 1992, I have utilized many of your clients’ auctions, accessible on your site, to purchase and sell rare documents. I have also used eBay since the 1990s. The Buyer Beware admonition applies to all auctions and my experience has been that when something goes awry, especially with authentication issues at the larger auction houses, one can lose many dollars in the battle of so called experts.
What we have here is a complete and authentic 1777 "Constitution of the State of New-York" published with the Declaration of Independence printed and sold by Styner and Cist minus the cover. This is not in dispute. The purchaser has read your article and the facts are now before them. The purchaser is welcome to pass on the acquisition. We will not lower our price and will not be disappointed should they pass.
Thank for the opportunity to respond
Stanley L. Klos