Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2008 Issue

<i>In The News</i>: Magna Carta Sells For $21.3 Million

Carta

The Magna Carta sold for over $21 million.


By Michael Stillman

It was the sale of this century, a one-item auction at Sotheby's in New York. At sale was one of the earlier versions of the Magna Carta, written by hand in 1297. The Magna Carta is the founding document of liberty, setting down basic rules which even the most powerful sovereigns of ancient England were forced to obey. There are but a handful of copies from the thirteenth century in existence, all but two still in England. Offered for sale was the only one in America (the other one outside of England resides in Australia), previously owned by Ross Perot's Perot Foundation. Perot purchased his copy in 1983 for $1.5 million.

When the hammer came down, the winning bid was a near record for the book and manuscript field - $21,321,000. As astounding as the number is, it may have been a slight disappointment, as it trended toward the lower end of the estimate of $20 - $30 million. Nevertheless, it was an impressive figure for an extraordinary document. Americans may be particularly pleased by the winner – David Rubinstein, an attorney and founder of the private equity firm the Carlyle Group. He served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy during the Carter administration.

Rubinstein immediately announced his intention to keep the document where it has been for the past 25 years - at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Apparently, he does not collect such material and has never even gone to an auction like this before. What with New York's busy traffic, he barely even made it to the auction room in time to bid. However, he was concerned that with exchange rates making items in America "cheap" for foreigners, this one American copy would end up leaving the country. Describing the document as a "beacon for freedom," Rubinstein decided to do his part to keep it in the U.S., and as a result, Americans will still be able to view a copy of this founding document in the nation's capital.

Another highly collectible and expensive (though not on the same level) document was sold at an obscure auction house in rural upstate New York. This story proves that gaining a reputation from one sale can lead to an opportunity to make a second. In this case, the book was a first edition of the Book of Mormon, printed in Palmyra, New York, in 1830. Back in September, small-town auctioneer Hessney Auction of Geneva was commissioned to clean out the home of a retired gentleman and came across a first edition Book of Mormon in the attic. That gentleman had purchased it many decades earlier and more or less forgot about it. That he was able to find one at the time is not terribly surprising as Geneva is just a stone's throw from Palmyra. That copy was sold by Hessney in September for $105,600.

News of that sale traveled all the way to Salt Lake City, Utah, where another individual had a first edition sitting on his bookshelf. This copy had been passed down from Harold Lindstrom, a music critic for the Deseret Morning News, who had purchased it in 1944. The owner noted the one hundred grand selling price and dispatched his copy to Geneva too. That copy was sold last month to an undisclosed California buyer for $97,900, slightly less than the previous copy for one in slightly less good condition. Reportedly, the new owner plans to fix the copy up a bit, stick it in his safe deposit box, and sell it in another year or so for a nice profit.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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