NEW YORK—In a specially designated evening sale on Dec. 18, Sotheby’s sold the venerated Magna Carta for $21.32 million, just clearing the low estimate of $20/30 million.
The document is one of only two copies outside England; the other is in the National Library of Australia. It was acquired by David Rubenstein, a former White House staff member during the Carter administration. Today the cofounder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, Rubenstein intends to return the Magna Carta, an iconic manuscript considered the “birth certificate of freedom,” to the National Archives in Washington D.C., where it has been on view to the public since arriving in America more than 22 years ago.
The charter was initially issued in 1215 by England’s King John, then ratified and reissued with succeeding monarchs; but it was not finally confirmed as English law until 1297, when this auctioned version was issued by King Edward I. The Magna Carta is one of fewer than 20 handwritten copies that were issued by the king and read publicly. Following the Sotheby’s sale, Rubenstein called it a “beacon for freedom,” adding, “I have always believed that the three most important documents were the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta.” Expressing “concern that the only copy that was in America would escape,” Rubenstein declared, “I was convinced it needed to stay here.”
The medieval vellum manuscript is the original charter that enshrined the rights of man into English law. Purchased in 1984 by Texas mogul Ross Perot from the Brudenell family, it was loaned two years later by the Perot Foundation to the National Archives. It is believed that the Brudenell family took possession of the document in the 16th century, possibly from a monastery ransacked during the Reformation. Money raised from the sale of the Magna Carta is earmarked for education, medical research and support for wounded soldiers and their families.