Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2008 Issue

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

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

  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Closing Time, Advance Readers Copy of Uncorrected Proof with a letter from Heller on his personal stationary
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Gates, Bill, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, N Y: Knopf, 2021; first edition, with a handwritten note from Bill Gates
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Catch-22, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, first edition, first printing, first issue dust jacket, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Heller, Joseph, Something Happened, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, first edition, inscribed on the front end paper by Heller
    Bid on iGavelAuctions.com: Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, London: John Murray, 1818, in four volumes
  • Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection
    London auction, 11 June
    BROWSE NOW
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Holkham Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, decorated manuscript on vellum [Toledo, 2nd quarter 13th century]. £1,500,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus [Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century / 4th century]. £2,000,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Geraardsbergen Bible. In Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Southern Netherlands, late 12th century]. £700,000–1,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now : Jean de Courcy (fl. 1420). The Chronique de la Bouquechardiere. In French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1480]. £200,000–300,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The ‘Catherine de Medici’ Hours. In Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485]. £120,000–180,000
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.

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