It is considered one of the most important documents to democracy -- the Magna Carta. It was originally created in 1215, and later reissued and adopted into English law in 1297. Out of 17 copies that exist today, only one -- written in 1297 -- has ever been offered at public auction. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports on the significance of the sale Tuesday, December 18, in New York and the expected millions it is expected to command.
It was written so long ago in such small, fine print that even if you understood the language - medieval Latin - you would still need a magnifying glass to read it.
But this ancient document, so elegantly written, so remarkably preserved, stirs excitement in the man who will sell it at public auction, Sotheby's Vice Chairman David Redden. "So many of the ideas that we think of as our national rights today trace their history right back to this extraordinary document," he said.
This is the Magna Carta, originally written under English King John in 1215, and eventually revised under King Edward I in 1297. The English translation of Magna Carta is "Great Charter." One of the fundamental rights enshrined in the document is that no man is above the law.
It was a document intended to establish the rights of the people under the rule of a king. It created a rule of law, and became the blue print for most of the founding principles that eventually created the United States.
"This is the progenitor, the ancestor, the great, great, great grandfather of our great documents of freedom, whether it is the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, or the Bill of Rights," Redden explains. "It has a tremendous meaning for our country. Our country is founded on English law."
Each time the Magna Carta was revised and re-issued in the 13th century, copies were made to distribute throughout the kingdom. Historians believe the original, sealed by King John in 1215, has not survived. But most of the copies that exist remain in England, with two exceptions.
"There are 17 -- 15 are in English public collections," notes Redden. "The 16th belongs to the Australian people. This [one being auctioned] is the only one that could conceivably come up for sale. It's the first time Magna Carta has ever been auctioned in its 700+ years, and it very well may be the last time."
This Magna Carta comes to Sotheby's through a foundation headed by Texas billionaire and one time U.S. Presidential hopeful Ross Perot. The Perot Foundation purchased it from an English family that had owned it for six centuries.
Redden speaks about the rare purchase opportunity which exists today. "An opportunity presented itself to purchase this document in the early 1980s," he said. "An American foundation jumped at it, and brought it back here so it could be displayed at the National Archives, where it has been displayed for 20 years with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution."
Redden admits that the National Archives would like to get this important document back in its collection. But he also adds that much of the money available to spend on such items as important - and expensive - as the Magna Carta rests in private hands.
"One of the conundrums of working at a place like Sotheby's is you look at something like this - and quite frankly it's priceless, it's incomparable," said Redden. "But in fact we do have to put estimates on these kinds of remarkable objects because it will come to auction, it will go through the marketplace, and our estimate on Magna Carta is $20 -30 million."
The estimate far exceeds the sale price of another important document that David Redden has auctioned. In 2000, he sold a rare copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence for $8.1 million.