This Is The Most Valuable Autograph Ever Sold

The most valuable autograph ever sold also happens to be one of the most expensive books and/or manuscripts ever sold. In 2012, George Washington's personal copy of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights sold at Christie's New York for $9.8 million. The 1789 annotated copy of "Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America" features the "bold" signature of the first U.S. president at the very top (see above). Prior to the auction, the rare book was estimated to sell for $3 million but exceeded it by some 326%.

Accounting for inflation, the successful $9.8 million bid for Washington's specially printed copy of the Acts of Congress, which includes the president's invaluable handwritten notes and drawn brackets alongside the parts of the U.S. Constitution that address the powers and duties of the president of the United States, would be valued at approximately $13.253 million today. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, a nonprofit that maintains the historic former home of George and Martha Washington in Virginia, placed the winning, returning the book to Mount Vernon 136 years after it was sold from the estate. Today, the book resides again in The Washington Library for the public to view.

Autograph value largely depends on the person

Authenticating autographs and placing a value on them today has become more difficult given the ease in which a fake autograph can be passed on by scammers. (See our roundup of money scams to watch out for in 2024.) However, in the case of George Washington's signature at the top of his copy of the Acts of Congress, its provenance was never in doubt. The rare volume was originally sold at auction in 1876, 87 years after Washington received his specially made copy, printed by the official printers of the United States, Francis Childs and John Swaine. Fast forward 88 years and the book was again sold at auction in 1964 to Americana collector Richard Dietrich, according to Christie's. Dietrich's estate then put the book up for sale again in 2012.

What determines the value of an autograph starts with whose autograph it is. Famous names are, of course, the most sought after, which leads to the second-most important factor in a signature's value: its availability. If it's super rare, like in the case of Washington's signature, then that's going to make a significant difference in the autograph's appraised value. Thirdly, what the person signed is also key. Heritage Auctions notes that the order of value typically follows as a signed piece of paper, a signed document (e.g., a contract), a signed photo, and a handwritten and signed letter.

The sale of other notable autographs

George Washington's autograph selling for $9.8 million is a record that may not be broken for some time. Prior to its sale, the previous record for the most valuable autograph ever sold was for Abraham Lincoln's signature. In December 2010, one of 48 signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, of which only 27 are known to still exist, sold for $3.7 million at Sotheby's. The document was sold by Robert F. Kennedy's family; Kennedy originally bought it for $9,500 in 1964.

Less than two years later, in June 2012, another copy of the Emancipation Proclamation was sold, this time for $2.1 million, or $1.6 million less than Kennedy's copy. This suggests that the Kennedy connection made a difference in the document's collectible value; in fact, Sotheby's named the lot the Kennedy-Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation. Speaking to Politico at the time, Seth Keller, an expert on the Emancipation Proclamation, said that both document sales, though, provided evidence of a "growing appreciation for documents that capture the most important moments in our history."

Another autograph that went for millions belonged to theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, whose signature on a 1954 letter, known as the "God" letter, sold for $2,892,000 at Christie's New York. The letter, which Einstein wrote a year before he died, contains his candid thoughts on God and religion. In its statement about the letter, the auction house said the letter "remains the most fully articulated expression of his religious and philosophical views" (via CNBC).