the money game

Crypto Fans Lose U.S. Constitution to a Billionaire

People take pictures of the extremely rare first printing of the United States Constitution, which was sold this week by Sotheby’s auction house in New York. Photo: Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images

If anything can make the world more sympathetic to the aims of the cryptos, it would be one of the world’s richest hedge fund managers winning an auction for a copy of the U.S. Constitution. According to The Wall Street Journal, Citadel founder and world’s 83rd-richest person Ken Griffin was the winning bidder for the rare, first-edition original copy of the Constitution, one of only 13 that survive, for a record $43.2 million. He beat out a group of 17,000 crypto enthusiasts who’d pooled their digital money in a kind of crowdfunding campaign with the aim of displaying it publicly in a high-traffic public institution. Instead, Griffin — worth about $22 billion — plans on loaning it to a barely ten-year old Bentonville, Arkansas, art museum founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton.

Griffin, of course, is a big spender, a what’s-the-point-of-all-of-this-money-if-I’m-not-going-to-use-it kind of guy. He closed on the world’s most expensive apartment, a 24,000-square-foot penthouse overlooking Central Park, in 2019 for $238 million. The Museum of Modern Art named its east wing after him, and he got the whole entire Chicago Museum of Science and Industry to rename itself for him following a $125 million gift. He’s an extensive collector of modern art, including Pollacks and Basquiats. ArtNews lists him as a top-200 collector.

What makes this auction result rife with tension is the obvious Big Rich Mean Man versus The People narrative. On the winning end you have Griffin’s Citadel, which has the dubious distinction of being one of the hedge funds that the Internet can name and likes to get mad at. Recently, Citadel Securities has caught attention because it’s one of the firms that buys trades and data from Robinhood, the stock-trading app popular among the day-trading crowd for its lack of trading fees — but which also gives them an advantage in the market. Earlier this year, amid the GameStop meme-stock frenzy, the day-traders on the Reddit board WallStreetBets accused Citadel of pressuring Robinhood to limit trading in meme stocks in order to protect hedge funds. Though the Securities and Exchange Commission knocked that theory down in October, the die was cast. Griffin was generally seen as an old-guard financier out to spoil everyone’s fun. (That isn’t strictly true, and Griffin, a crypto skeptic, has made some positive noises about Ethereum, the digital currency the cryptos used to try to buy the copy of the Constitution.) Griffin’s auction win stirred the self-described apes of WallStreetBets to both revile and revere the move. “This is too good to be true,” one redditor commented. “Before the auction the crypto-folks were joking that only a true villain would outbid a decentralized organization formed by the people to collectively buy the Constitution.”

On the losing end was the cryptos, who’d raised $47 million but still ended up short. According to the group, there were 17,437 of them, all organized under a kind of Kickstarter campaign called a DAO — short for decentralized autonomous organization. The idea was this: What if people all over the world could pool their crypto into this kind of shell company, buy a copy of the Constitution, and then display it for the public good? It was a hit. The median amount of money given to the ConstitutionDAO was $206.06 — the kind of relatively low-dollar figure that any politician would brag about, though the average contribution was more than ten times higher. Still, before Griffin was revealed as the winning bidder, the ConstitutionDAO was seen as a weird crypto joke by the Too Online who put emoji of scrolls in their Twitter profiles — the kind of thing that seemed to attract a cringe-inducing amount of enthusiasm from people in a very polarizing niche. But now that the cryptos lost and a piece of American history is very likely to double as a tax break, the whole enterprise has gained a kind of collectivist afterglow, whether that’s deserved or not.

It’s not a bad thing that Arkansans will get a chance to view the historic document, and just about every major museum is backed or owned by the extremely wealthy, so it’s not like Walton is some outlier. The New York City Public Library already has a copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting, and the actual Constitution is available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Zia Ahmed, a spokesman for Citadel, told Intelligencer “this copy will now be available to the public for free and be displayed at various public venues across the U.S. over time.” So there’s a chance that, if you didn’t want to make the trip out to Bentonville to see this particular Constitution, all you have to do is wait.

This post has been updated.

Crypto Fans Lose U.S. Constitution to a Billionaire