Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2007 Issue

<i>Magna Carta</i>, Valued at $20-$30 Million, Put Up For Auction

Magnacarta

This 1297 copy of the Magna Carta will be sold in December. Photo courtesy of Sotheby&#146;s.


By Michael Stillman

Unlike peace of mind, as depicted in the MasterCard commercials, no books or manuscripts are "priceless," at least not in the literal sense. They all have their price. However, a few are of such extraordinary importance and value as to be "priceless" figuratively. One such item will find its literal worth the week of December 10th in the auction rooms of Sotheby's New York. Up for sale that week will be a 1297 manuscript copy of England's Magna Carta. It is perhaps the most important document ever conceived by man.

The Magna Carta (Great Charter) represented the first official statement of the right to liberty. Sotheby's, with no exaggeration, refers to it as "the birth certificate of freedom." It arose as a result of conflicts between the unpopular King John and the English barons. Various issues of the day had placed the King in a weakened position, leaving him no choice but to assent to certain demands of the baronage. In 1215, King John placed his seal on the original Magna Carta. It contained numerous provisions, many now dated and repealed, but it also enshrined in law the most basic of rights, that of Habeas Corpus. This right prevented the King from arbitrarily imprisoning his subjects (at least those considered freemen). Those imprisoned were guaranteed the right to trial before a court of law, and judgment by their peers. No man, King included, would be above the law.

While the Magna Carta is an English document, it also served as an inspiration for America's Declaration of Independence, and the foundation for the rights enshrined in the Constitution. Oddly, after all of these centuries, the primacy of the right of habeas corpus is still being debated in America within the context of terrorist suspects.

The original Magna Carta was sealed in 1215, although it soon went through various revisions. Only four copies of the 1215 "edition" are known to still exist, all in England. There are also a few revised versions in England from the period between 1215 and 1297. However, it was not until 1297, during the reign of Edward I, that the Magna Carta was settled and officially adopted. It is this "final" version which is now being offered for auction. Fewer than twenty of these are known to exist, all in England with the exception of this copy and one owned by the government of Australia.

The copy to be offered by Sotheby's can be traced as far back as the late 14th or early 15th century. It had been in the possession of the Brudenell family since that time, probably through one of two ancestors who were notable lawyers. In 1984, the family sold it to the Perot Foundation, an American charitable organization headed by the Texas entrepreneur, billionaire, and two-time iconoclastic presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. The Perot Foundation soon placed it on display in the National Archives in Washington. The Foundation does not seek publicity, but is engaged in various charitable causes and presumably wants to make the funds tied up in this document available for such uses.

With other copies secreted away in institutional collections, Sotheby's notes that this is the only Magna Carta "ever likely to be sold." If you want one, you better plan on placing your bids now. How much it will cost is unknown, but one thing is certain - it will not come cheaply. Sotheby's has placed an estimate of $20-$30 million on the document. This is an unheard of figure in the world of books and manuscripts. Perot was reported to have paid $1.5 million for it in 1984, a princely sum at the time, yet still reaffirming that beneath whatever his personal oddities, there lies a smart businessman. Perhaps in another 33 years, $20 or $30 million will look like a bargain.

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