Nov 17, 2021 - Technology

Crypto believers bid on U.S. Constitution

Photo of masked person holding a framed page of the U.S. constitution
Photo by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Constitution — one copy of it, anyway — is the latest asset to become the focus of crypto-powered, meme-stock-style investment fever.

What's happening: People are ponying up millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency to buy into ConstitutionDAO, a consortium assembling a bid on an original Constitution that's for sale in a Thursday Sotheby's auction.

  • The auction describes the document as one of 13 surviving copies of the Constitution's original 1787 print run.
  • As of Tuesday afternoon, ConstitutionDAO — or the 13 Twitter accounts listed on its website as organizers — had raised more than $5 million worth of Ethereum toward its bid. (Sotheby's says the expected range for the auction is $15 to $20 million.)

Catch up quick: DAO stands for "decentralized autonomous organization." DAOs are created in code using crypto-based systems, most commonly Ethereum.

  • People who buy into ConstitutionDAO will receive voting rights to steer decisions made by the group, but not actual fractional ownership of the DAO assets. That helps keep the project from triggering securities regulations.

Yes, but: Like previous online group-investing crazes — including those surrounding GameStop stock and canine cryptocurrencies — the participants in ConstitutionDAO are both making investment decisions and engaging in a kind of collective stunt or trolling.

  • The photo on ConstitutionDAO's Twitter profile is a shot of Nicolas Cage in "National Treasure," the 2004 film about a treasure map hidden on the back of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
  • "We're All Gonna Buy The Constitution," reads the Twitter profile banner.

The big picture: As with NFTs, DAOs are part of the cryptocurrency-fueled "Web3" movement, which aims to displace today's giant online platforms (and offline financial institutions) by spreading decentralized, blockchain-based technology.

  • You can think of ConstitutionDAO as a more anonymous, cryptographic version of a GoFundMe or Kickstarter project, but instead of getting a "backer's gift" you get a "governance token."

The catch: DAOs are legally murky novelties that probably can't take direct ownership of an asset like this, at least right now.

  • Sotheby's told Axios' Felix Salmon: "As DAOs are not legally recognized entities in most jurisdictions, Sotheby's requires DAOs to take certain legal steps to ensure the entity can participate in our auctions at this time."

Our thought bubble: ConstitutionDAO's buyers are simultaneously having meme fun and trying to make a more serious statement about governance and collective ownership.

  • In 1996, at the dawn of Web 1.0, John Perry Barlow wrote a famous "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace."
  • Web3 is all about new kinds of money and ownership, so instead of writing a new constitution, its enthusiasts have set out to buy an old one.

Why it matters: ConstitutionDAO organizers say they "intend to put The Constitution in the hands of The People." They say they will place the document out for public view with the help of an "esteemed partner" if their bid succeeds.

  • True, you can already see a different copy of the Constitution at the National Archives, and it's already collectively owned by the American people, as Bloomberg's Matt Levine points out.
  • But only ConstitutionDAO's copy will offer visitors the futuristic aura of blockchain tech — along with the "lulz" of an online in-joke.

What's next: If the bid fails, the organizers say they expect the DAO to return the contributions.

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