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Auction House to Sell US Civil Rights Leader's Estate

The estate of slain U.S. civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will soon be sold to the highest bidder. The auction house handling the sale hopes a major institution will step up to house this American archive.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the former leader of the American civil rights movement, influenced generations of people around the world. Many of the manuscripts and books that shaped this legacy were passed down to his family after he was assassinated in 1968. The auction house Sotheby's is offering the collection at the end of June.

Dr. King's widow Coretta Scott King, who died months ago, had earlier tried to sell the collection to the U.S. Library of Congress for $20 million, but the deal fell through over concerns about cost and copyright.

David Redden is vice chairman of the auction house Sotheby's, which hopes to sell the collection to a major public institution for between $15 million to $30 million.

"An auction for something like this is really sort of a method of last resort," he said. "I think the estate would have liked to have seen this transferred privately to an institution. And there had been negotiations over the years, which had never really reached any resolutions. I think Mrs. King's passing did actually give some urgency to the process, and so an auction was organized to just really try to bring this to a close."

More than 10,000 of Dr. King's manuscripts and books are included in the collection. The estate has prohibited selling the collection in pieces. It must be sold as one unit. Redden says institutions will be more interested in the collection because it is intact.

"I believe this archive is terribly important as a unit," he noted. "The documents speak to each other. There's interrelationships which you lose if the documents are scattered to the winds. So, by requiring that it be sold as one lot, by requiring that it be kept together afterwards, you are, in fact, saving history."

Sotheby's official Elizabeth Muller says the auction house is highlighting Dr. King's major addresses and letters in its pre-auction exhibit. In addition to the well-known "I Have a Dream" address, visitors will also be able to see drafts and revisions of Dr. King's speech accepting the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and a celebrated letter he wrote while in jail for his civil rights activities.

"The 'Dream' we've put up in four separate cases so people can walk around them and see the fronts and backs of them," she said. "It's in a very long hallway which is almost a hall of honor. It contains Dr. King's Nobel Peace Prize, the draft and the final reading copy, as well as his outlines for his acceptance speech, as well as the final editorial revisions he made to his letter from Birmingham jail."

Ms. Muller says the collection is extensive, featuring correspondence with presidents and business leaders as well as his briefcase filled with airline receipts and toiletries.

"I think you could spend two or three hours very easily because it does require a great deal of reading," she added. "Fortunately for us, Dr. King had a habit of writing usually on only one side of the page, so you could, theoretically, go through and read all 20 pages of the Nobel Peace Prize [address)]in its draft from, for example."

The auction takes place June 30. A portion of the proceeds from the sale will go to the cash-strapped King Center in Atlanta, which Coretta Scott King founded after her husband died. The remaining money will be divided among King's four children