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>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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