Nearly 150 pages of original documents from the Roe v. Wade legal case fetched more than $600,000 in an auction sale earlier this month.
Instead of being loaned or donated to an archive or library, the historic works were sold to an unidentified buyer on March 3, coinciding with the 53rd anniversary of the filing of Roe v. Wade.
The documents were previously owned by Linda Coffee, the attorney who filed the case in a Texas court in 1970 alongside her co-counsel Sarah Weddington. The case eventually led to the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right in the U.S.
Coffee’s receipt for the case’s initial $15 filing fee was included in the March 3 sale from Nate D. Sanders, a Los Angeles-based auction house. The lot included court documents, Supreme Court quill pens and an affidavit signed by Norma McCorvey, who used the pseudonym Jane Roe, according to the auction house’s listing. It also included a 1969 letter Coffee wrote to Sarah Weddington, proposing the two women work together “to challenge the Texas Abortion Statute.”
In June, Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court after nearly 50 years. Different variations of abortion bans have since appeared in 13 states following the decision.
Why weren’t the documents donated?
Bidding for the auction started at $50,000, with the archival collection going to an unidentified buyer.
It isn’t uncommon for these types of historical works to be sold at auction as opposed to donated to a library or archive, according to Steve Mielke, archivist and collections librarian for the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. “It’s largely up to the owner of the materials,” he said. “If they’re looking to make money, they’ll put it up for auction.”
Archival donations also depend on tax laws, said Mielke. For example, works which were inherited or collected instead of being originally owned by the donor are more likely to qualify for tax deductions, which could further incentivize giving such material to institutions, he said.
The Harry Ransom Center, an archive and museum with more than 1 million books and 42 million manuscripts, would have potentially been interested in acquiring Coffee’s materials if brought to its attention and offered at a reasonable price, said Mielke.
In addition to receiving works through donations and private sales, he said that the center occasionally bids at auction for smaller groups of materials. The collection’s final bid of $615,000, however, “was probably something beyond what we would be able to do.”
Nate D. Sanders Auctions did not respond to requests for comment.