The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A group of crypto enthusiasts lost out on the auction to buy a rare copy of the U.S. Constitution

The group said it raised more than $40 million to bid on one of 13 remaining copies of the document’s first printing

Ella Hall, a specialist in Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby's, holds a 1787 printed copy of the U.S. Constitution that was auctioned Thursday. (Richard Drew/AP)

A group of crypto enthusiasts were unsuccessful in their attempt to buy a historic copy of the U.S. Constitution after raising millions from investors who jumped on board.

The group, called ConstitutionDAO, raised the equivalent of more than $40 million to purchase the document, which Sotheby’s said is one of 13 copies of the first printing of the Constitution. But the group confirmed it did not have the winning bid in a message to members Thursday evening.

“While this wasn’t the outcome we hoped for, we still made history tonight with ConstitutionDAO,” a message from the group organizers said. “We are so incredibly grateful to have done this together with you all and are still in shock that we even got this far.”

In a tweet, Sotheby’s said the document sold for $43.2 million. The buyer is unknown.

More than 17,000 people donated to the DAO group to buy the document, using a cryptocurrency called Ether. In exchange, they would have received governance tokens — or, essentially, a way to vote on where and how the copy of the Constitution should be displayed. On its website, the group said it ideally wanted to find a partner that would display the document free to the public.

“I thought the idea of ‘for the people’ to be bought by the people was kind of funny, and also pretty historic,” said Christian Tirone, a filmmaker and 3-D artist who donated to the project.

A group of crypto investors is trying to buy a rare copy of the U.S. Constitution

The project seemed to be a way not only to make the Constitution more accessible, but also to garner interest and excitement about cryptocurrency and its stated decentralized ideals. A DAO, or decentralized autonomous organization, is a self-governance structure pioneered by crypto users to pursue a project and allow participants to vote on major decisions.

“We have educated an entire cohort of people around the world — from museum curators and art directors to our grandmothers,” the DAO message said.

In a chatroom on the messaging service Discord, more than 18,600 people joined to discuss the upcoming auction earlier on Thursday and send memes back and forth. One user, altryne, made a website compiling messages from members around the world, including thoughts like, “Small amount but we must all do our part. We the People.”

During the auction, crypto enthusiasts took over the live chat on Sotheby’s YouTube stream. “When is the constitution!?!?” one user asked. After the results were announced, they commiserated together on Discord.

As expected, the Discord contains many jokes about the Nicholas Cage movie “National Treasure,” in which the action star stole the Declaration of Independence.

“After [we buy the Constitution], are we going to need to protect it from nic cage theft attempts?” one user, austonst, asked earlier Thursday.

Though Sotheby’s would not have accepted cryptocurrency payment for the Constitution, the auction house did accept bids in Ether for the first time during an auction earlier in the evening for two pieces by the artist Banksy.

The Constitution project has brought in some members who have been curious about DAOs. One, Luke Adler, said he heard about the effort on Twitter and it seemed like an approachable way to dip a toe in the DAO water.

“I wanted a say in what happens to the document if the group was successful,” he said. “My contribution will give me that vote.”

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The project hits on some familiar community aspects of the Internet, where people want to come together and have fun — anyone remember Boaty McBoatface? — said Anil Dash, chief executive of Internet company Glitch and an angel investor.

But ultimately, he said he believes it was simply a stunt designed to attract attention and legitimacy to the crypto and DAO communities — as well as to laugh at memes.

“There’s a lot of sincere desire to be taken seriously,” he said.