The only copy of Magna Carta in private hands sold for $21.32 million (£10.6
million) this morning in the first auction of the “birth certificate of
The 1297 example, described as the most important document to come up for
sale, was acquired by David Rubenstein, the founder of the Carlyle Group, at
Sotheby’s in New York. He has paid $8,528 a word.
Sotheby’s had put a pre-sale estimate on the document of $20-$30 million.
The 14in-by-16in (35.6cm-by40.6cm) sheet of animal-skin vellum is one of only
17 originals of the founding “Great Charter” of English liberties first
signed by King John at Runnymede — near present-day Staines, Surrey — in
The document established the principle of habeas corpus, which protects people
against unlawful imprisonment by ensuring such rights as trial by jury and
freedom from unlawful arrest.
Clause 39 proclaims: “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or
outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him,
except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Four of the surviving 17 copies date from the reign of John, eight from that
of Henry III and five from that of Edward I. The Sotheby’s example bears the
wax seal of King Edward I hanging from a ribbon at the bottom of the
parchment — one of only five that still carry the royal seal.
1297 was the year that Magna Carta was formally entered into the statute rolls
as the law of England. It came into being as a result of a dispute between
King John and the English barons and went some way towards limiting the
authority of the king.
The only other original outside Britain was a gift by the country to “The
People of Australia”. It is on display at the Parliament in Canberra.
Mr Rubenstein, the founder of the Carlyle private equity group and a former
deputy domestic policy adviser to President Carter, said that he would put
the document back on public view at the National Archives in Washington,
where it had been on loan.
“I thought it was very important that the Magna Carta stay in the United
States, and I was concerned the only copy in the United States might escape
the United States as a result of this auction,” he said.
“I am a person who has served in government myself. I worked in the White
House as a young man. At that time I recognised the importance of these kind
of documents and the importance of freedom.”
He admitted that he could not actually read it because he had avoided learning
Latin at school — a decision he now regrets.
The 2,500-word document, written in medieval Latin, was put up for sale by the
Texan software billionaire and two-time independent presidential candidate
Mr Perot acquired it for $1.5 million in 1984 from relatives of James Thomas
Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade
during the Crimean War. Magna Carta had been at the Brudenells’ family seat
at Deene Park, Northamptonshire, for more than half a millennium.
In a catalogue essay Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East
Anglia theorises that the Brudenells obtained it in Buckinghamshire after
William Brudenell, the founder of the family’s fortunes, married an heiress
there during the reign of Edward III.
After displaying Magna Carta at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Mr Perot
loaned it to the US National Archives in Washington, where it has been seen
by a million people.
“It’s in remarkable condition for a document that dates from 1297,” Chris Rudy
Smith, an archivist at the institution, said before the sale.
Proceeds of the sale will go to Mr Perot’s foundation to make funds available
for medical research and care for wounded military veterans.
Or £4,233 — the cost per word of buying the only edition of Magna
Carta in private hands. A copy of J. K. Rowling’s The Tales