A dozen or so friends from the Internet gathered recently at Sotheby’s in Manhattan to buy a first printing of the U.S. Constitution (estimated value: fifteen to twenty million dollars). The group, who called themselves ConstitutionDAO, had just spent a week raising millions of dollars on Twitter, TikTok, and Discord from anonymous screen names: recent immigrants, college dropouts, the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of someone who fought in the American Revolution. (The “DAO” in “ConstitutionDAO” stands for “decentralized autonomous organization”—a leaderless corporate structure that resembles an online chat room with a bank account.) They raised four million in the first twenty-four hours. Then someone pitched in another four million, in Ethereum’s currency. By the next evening, the project had gone viral: seventeen thousand donors had given more than thirty-three million (median contribution: $206.26). “I feel like I’m part of an organism!” a twenty-eight-year-old contributor wearing a green fur coat and leather sandals said, excitedly, in the Sotheby’s lobby. “It’s fucking awesome.” Nearby, a man named Sean Murray, dressed in a military jacket, white breeches, and a tricorne hat, held up a homemade sign reading “I’M BUYING THE CONSTITUTION.”
Another man walked up to Murray and introduced himself: “I was wondering if anyone else would show up!” Murray looked down at his getup and said, “I gotta be different, right?” He laughed. “I’m glad it’s a real-life thing. You don’t want to come out here and figure out it was Twitter bots the whole time.”
The item the D.A.O. planned to bid on that evening was one of only thirteen surviving first printings of the U.S. Constitution. It belonged to Dorothy Goldman, whose late husband purchased it, in 1988, for a hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars. The document—Sotheby’s Lot No. 1787—was typeset by David Claypoole and John Dunlap, in Philadelphia, on September 17, 1787. (Dunlap also typeset the first printings of the Declaration of Independence.) “It was a very labor-intensive process,” a Sotheby’s representative said, in a film distributed to prospective bidders.
On the third floor, several of the group’s “core contributors”—the leaders of the leaderless organization, who promised to return everyone’s money if the group didn’t win—had assembled in a climate-controlled gallery to inspect the document, which was encased in glass.
“It doesn’t look like whatever million dollars it’s gonna go for. It’s just a piece of parchment!” a software developer from Brooklyn said. He wore a Fat Albert button-down and rainbow Pumas.
“The letter ‘S’—it looks like an ‘F,’ ” a man in a tan hoodie said. “ ‘Blessings’ looks like ‘Bluffings!’ ”
Across the room, Liliana Pinochet, a seventy-five-year-old woman who had just finished a cancer treatment at a nearby hospital, asked the group what they would do with the Constitution.
“We’re talking to museums about where would be best to host it,” Nicole Ruiz, who wore a long plaid coat, said. She explained that the donors wouldn’t actually own the document, but would help determine its future. “The whole group gets to vote!” she said.
“I’m glad it’s not going to private hands,” Pinochet said. “It’s a pity when things go to the banks.”
Upstairs, the group filed into the saleroom, where, in a few hours, a Sotheby’s rep would bid on their behalf by phone. “To have access like this is insane,” MacKenzie Burnett, a twenty-eight-year-old tech C.E.O., said.
“It’s really funny to think about,” Theo Bleier, a high-school student, said. “None of us are independently extremely wealthy—like, auction wealthy.”
At six, about thirteen thousand screen names gathered online to watch the auction; another sixty or so assembled at a co-working space in midtown for an I.R.L. watch party. Robbie Heeger, the group’s designated representative, who had never participated in a big auction, scribbled, “W.G.B.T.C.”—“We’re gonna buy the Constitution”—on a whiteboard. “Hello? Hello?” he barked into his iPhone. The call with the Sotheby’s rep had just dropped. “What?” someone yelled. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Two minutes later, Heeger’s phone rang. “Let’s fucking do this!” he said. “Huzzah!”
The auctioneer started the bidding at ten million; within seconds, a Sotheby’s employee holding a black telephone receiver, who represented the hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin, raised it to thirty million. (Griffin is said to hate cryptocurrency.)
“Wait a minute,” Heeger wailed, flummoxed. “O.K., do thirty-one!”
Griffin countered with thirty-two million. A bidding war ensued: thirty-four million dollars . . . thirty-seven million dollars . . . thirty-eight million . . .
“Get the fuck out of here!” Heeger shouted. “O.K., let’s make it seem like we’re thinking about it. At the last minute, go for thirty-nine.” He paused. “No, forty!” He looked around the room apologetically. “I think we’re totally maxed.”
The auctioneer said, “We can bring the hammer up!” Heeger said, “Just let it go!” Another fifty seconds passed before Griffin placed the highest bid ever for a historic document: forty-one million dollars, or roughly one-fifth of one per cent of his net worth.
Heeger hung up the phone. Downstairs, a security guard asked what happened. Someone said that their bid was about a million dollars short. “Next time, you gotta call me,” the guard said. “I could’ve loaned you that.” ♦
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