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Cryptocurrency group to bid on first-edition copy of Constitution

If the group succeeds in buying the Constitution, the people who've given money will vote on what to do with it, likely sending it somewhere free and open to the public.
A page of the first printing of the United States Constitution at the offices of Sotheby's auction house in New York on Sept. 17, 2021.
A page of the first printing of the U.S. Constitution at the offices of Sotheby's auction house in New York on Sept. 17.Ed Jones / AFP via Getty Images file

When rare copies of historic documents go up for auction, it's often wealthy businesspeople who make the winning bids.

But in an auction scheduled for Thursday, a ragtag group of cryptocurrency fans who found one another on social media may be the ones who walk away with a first-edition copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Powered by cryptocurrency memes and inspired by a 2004 Nicolas Cage movie, the group, which calls itself ConstitutionDAO, reported having raised more than $32 million from thousands of mostly anonymous donors in less than a week of online organizing.

It's a project that demonstrates the power of internet crowd-sourcing and the spread of cryptocurrency further into mainstream culture. On Tuesday, the stadium where the Los Angeles Lakers play announced that Singapore-based had bought the naming rights for what had been known as the Staples Center.

The pot of cryptocurrency now puts ConstitutionDAO in a possibly competitive position to bid on one of the founding documents of American democracy.

“Crypto will allow the US constitution to fulfill its original mission! Freedom!” wrote one person who contributed $400 worth of the cryptocurrency ethereum to the cause Wednesday. (The fact that transactions are publicly viewable is a defining feature of cryptocurrency.)

Another Twitter user called the effort a "financial flash mob."

The copy of the Constitution, printed in 1787 when the framers wrote the document, will go up for auction Thursday at Sotheby's. It's one of 13 copies thought to remain from the 500 copies that were printed, and it's the last one that has been in the hands of an individual collector.

The document had been expected to fetch as much as $20 million a few days ago, but the crypto fund has added a layer of uncertainty. ConstitutionDAO has said $40 million would give it a "great chance of winning."

The auction is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in New York.

The "DAO" in ConstitutionDAO stands for "decentralized autonomous organization," a label for a new generation of bottom-up, internet-based groups using a transparent digital ledger known as the blockchain. Some people refer to this vision of a decentralized internet as Web 3.0, or Web3.

"What we're trying now is the great decentralized blockchain experiment," said Graham Novak, an associate at a venture capital firm in Atlanta and one of 30 people listed as core contributors to the group.

Novak, speaking to a group of Twitter users Wednesday in an audio broadcast, said the group has good intentions — primarily, the idea that anyone is able to have a piece of the historic document.

"Who else is going to buy this? A super-wealthy person who just puts it in a collection in their basement?" he asked.

This copy of the Constitution was last for sale in 1988, when the real estate developer S. Howard Goldman bought it at auction. He and his wife displayed it publicly throughout the years.

Other wealthy businessmen, from private equity magnate David Rubenstein to a co-founder of the early search engine Magellan, have bought copies of rare documents, such as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.

Technically, contributors to ConstitutionDAO wouldn't own a piece of the document. Instead, they would each get a "governance token" that would grant them the ability to advise on topics like where the Constitution should be displayed if they win the auction.

If ConstitutionDAO wins the auction, it plans to publicly display the Constitution through an "esteemed partner," ideally an institution that's free to the public and willing to cover associated costs, according to the group's website.

"None of the core contributors wish to physically alter The Constitution in any way, and are committed to its safety and security," the group says in a frequently-asked-questions documents.

The organizing has taken place on apps like Twitter, the chat platform Discord, Google Docs and other apps, which have been used to recruit others and solicit contributions.

Organizers have asked not only for money but also for memes to drum up interest — in particular, any memes related to "National Treasure," the 2004 film in which Nicolas Cage plays a man trying to steal a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

And organizers said that if they win, they will put their plan to display the Constitution to a vote among all contributors — a show of democracy designed to echo the document itself.

"We knew that we wanted to involve people who were everywhere," said another of the core contributors, Anisha Sunkerneni, a San Francisco-based investor. "We wanted anybody who wanted to be a part of this to be able to do so."