Button Gwinnett signature fetches $722,500 at auction

A 1776 letter signed by Georgia colonial Button Gwinnett sold for $722,500 Wednesday at Sotheby's in New York, exceeding the high estimate auction officials had placed on the document.

The sale was part of the James S. Copley Library collection placed for bid Wednesday, "but Button was the standout star," said Blair Hance, spokeswoman for Sotheby's.

There were two people competing for the letter, Hance said, and the top bidder, an unnamed private collector, was present at the auction.

The item draws value from the fact that Button Gwinnett was one of three Georgians to sign the Declaration of Independence. There are only 51 known documents carrying his signature, said Selby Kiffer, senior specialist with Sotheby's.  Experts at the auction house estimate the letter would bring from $500,000 to $700,000.

The letter, dated July 12, 1776, is from the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress to a clerk assigned to the frigate Randolph under construction in Philadelphia. It was drafted by Timothy Matlack and is signed by Gwinnett, Robert Morris, John Hancock, Francis Lewis, George Read and Arthur Middleton.

Kiffer ventured the document would have sold for from $40,000 to $60,000 without Gwinnett's signature.