NEW YORK ~ One of only 17 existing copies of the Magna Carta, the iconic 800-year-old English royal manuscript setting out the rights of man, sold at auction at Sotheby’s this week for US$21.3 million.
Arguably the most important document ever to be auctioned, the vellum manuscript was picked up by a telephone bidder, selling for the lower range of its pre-sale estimate of $20 to $30 million.
The royal charter, dated 1297 and bearing the wax seal of King Edward I, enshrined the rights of man into English law and is considered the precursor of such landmark historical documents as the US Declaration of Independence.
Sotheby’s Vice Chairman and the auctioneer of the sale, David Redden, described the vellum manuscript as quite simply “the most important document in the world.”
“It’s the great-great-great-grandfather of some of the great documents – at least in America – of freedom, such as the declaration of independence, the constitution or the bill of rights,” he said.
“All of these have a common ancestor, which is Magna Carta.”
The manuscript is the only one of 17 remaining examples ever likely to be sold. Most of the rest belong to Britain’s national archives, cathedrals or universities while the only other copy outside Britain belongs to Australia.
The manuscript, most likely made of sheepskin, enshrined the rule of law in England at a time of disagreements between King John and the English barons. It was first issued in 1215 and confirmed as English law in 1297.
Redden described the document, which required the king to accept that he was bound by law in the same way as his subjects, as “the first rung on the ladder to freedom” and “a talisman of liberty.”
As well as enshrining the concept that no man is above the law, the document also establishes the right to a speedy trial by a jury of one’s peers.
“It’s actually amazing that this has come to auction; it’s quite remarkable. It’s the only time Magna Carta has ever been sold at auction and it’s quite possibly the only time it ever will be,” Redden explained.
The proceeds from the sale of the Magna Carta – Latin for “Great Charter” – are to go to a charity set up by billionaire and twice US presidential candidate in the 1990s Ross Perot, whose foundation bought it in 1984.
The document previously belonged to the Brudenells of Northamptonshire, England, who owned it since the late 14th or early 15th centuries.