Published June 15, 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – A rare leather-bound book that played an influential role in America's early history could bring a windfall for a soldier training for his second tour in Iraq.
Indiana National Guard Capt. Nathan Harlan was a high school junior when he paid $7 for a 1788 first edition of volume one of "The Federalist" — a two-volume book of essays calling for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Harlan, a 35-year-old from Granger, Ind., said he always thought his find might be worth about $500, not the thousands it could fetch when it's sold online Tuesday by Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas.
"I'm really hoping it goes for $100,000, but I'm not holding my breath," he said, chuckling.
The divorced father of three was 16 when he bought the 227-page book in 1990 after his mother spotted it among book stacks as they browsed at a South Bend, Ind., flea market.
Harlan's high school history class happened to be discussing "The Federalist" — also known as "The Federalist Papers" — that same week, so he knew the book was special.
The two-volume set was published months after the Constitution was drafted in September 1787 in Philadelphia. Its collected essays helped rally support for ratifying the document that provided the federal government's framework, said Mark Dimunation, chief of the rare book and special collections division at The Library of Congress.
The essays were penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, all of whom used the same pseudonym to focus attention on their pro-ratification arguments.
"It's one of the great political documents to come out of America," Dimunation said. "And the favorite parlor game of the late 18th century was who wrote which essay."
After displaying his find in a shadowbox for 19 years, Harlan decided in April to sell it on eBay in part to make some money but also because no one else in his family appreciated the book.
Harlan did an Internet search for "The Federalist" just before listing the book on the online auction site. He changed his mind about eBay when he saw that Heritage Auction Galleries sold a complete two-volume set last year for $262,900 — a lofty price aided by the fact that it was in its original form and had been owned by a Revolutionary War soldier.
Harlan owns just a single volume, and its leather cover has been replaced, but the auction house estimates it will sell for $8,000 to $12,000. James Gannon, Heritage's director of rare books, calls that range "very conservative" and says bidding could push the final price between $20,000 and $30,000 because the book is sought-after.
Harlan will get all the proceeds. Heritage is waiving its standard 20 percent seller's commission in recognition of his upcoming service in Iraq. He plans to save most of his auction earnings after paying a few bills.
Harlan, who is currently training at Indiana's Camp Atterbury, will likely be overseas by the time he gets his money. He will deploy this summer with the rest of the 140-soldier 38th Combat Aviation Brigade for up to a year.
Nick Aretakis, an associate with William Reese Co., an antiquarian book dealer in New Haven, Conn., said the book could be especially appealing to a collector who owns only the second volume and wants the other half.
"It's always better to have the complete set," Aretakis said. "But it's such an important book that even having just a single volume is a nice thing. And it was a good buy at $7."