(Sept. 26) - The 2,500 words fill a page that is a couple of inches shorter than this one, but almost as wide. The faded letters in Latin are unreadable in places. Something that looks like a scraggly, russet-colored tail hangs from the bottom.
It is the document that laid the foundation for fundamental principles of English law. Angry colonists complained long before the Boston Tea Party that King George III had violated it. The men who drafted the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights borrowed from it.
It is Magna Carta, agreed to by King John of England in 1215 and revised and reaffirmed through the 13th century. The tail dangling off the page is a royal seal.
And it is about to go on sale.
Sotheby's, which today is expected to announce plans to auction it in New York in mid-December, estimates that the document will sell for $20 million to $30 million. It is the only copy in the United States and the only copy in private hands. Sotheby's says the 16 others are owned by the British or Australian governments or by ecclesiastical or educational institutions in England.
Until last week, this copy was on display in the National Archives in Washington, steps from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But it was only on loan from a foundation controlled by the Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who bought it in 1984 for $1.5 million.
The foundation told the archives this month that it had decided to end the loan and take back Magna Carta. Its departure came so suddenly that the archives did not have time to remodel the display case or fill it with some of the nine billion documents from the archives' own collection.
"This is surprising," said Lewis L. Neilson Jr., the chancellor of the National Society Magna Charta Dames and Barons, a nonprofit group in Philadelphia that promotes awareness of Magna Carta, the literal translation of which is "Great Paper." "It provides a real rallying point for emphasizing the importance of individual liberty and the rule of law, and it will be curious to see what happens to it and who's interested in purchasing it and what they do with it."
The Perot Magna Carta dates to 1297 and was endorsed by King Edward I. The National Archives said that of the 17 original versions that still exist, 4 are from the reign of John; 8 are from Henry III; and 5 are from Edward I. Mr. Neilson said that some jurists consider the Perot Magna Carta to be the most important one because it was the one that was entered into the statute books in England.
Trudy Renna, the only employee of the Perot Foundation identified on its tax return, said in a telephone interview last week that the foundation decided to sell Magna Carta to "have funds available for medical research, for improving public education and for assisting wounded soldiers and their families."
The tax return listed the foundation's assets as $56.9 million at the end of last year and its contributions as $9.08 million, including more than $4 million for medical research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Mr. Perot is listed as president of the foundation and also as a director. Seven of the nine other directors are his wife, Margot; their five children; and his sister, Bette Perot.
Mr. Perot, the onetime independent candidate for president of the United States, bought it from relatives of James Thomas Brudenell, the Earl of Cardigan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, during the Crimean War. The copy was said to have been in the family's possession since sometime in the Middle Ages.
But later generations were apparently unaware of its importance. The National Archives in Washington said it was "discovered" in 1974 during an inventory at the family's estate at Deene Park in England. The National Archives said it came into the family's hands through Edmund Brudenell, who served as attorney general under Richard II in the 14th century, or through Sir Robert Brudenell, who was chief justice of common pleas under Henry VIII in the 16th century.
By the time Mr. Perot bought the copy, it had been on the market for four years, and at least one deal had fallen through before Mr. Perot came along. At the time, Mr. Perot said he was "amazed" that it had been for sale.
"It was like someone said 'Mona Lisa,' " he said at the time.
He sent it to Philadelphia in 1987 during the observance of the Constitution's bicentennial, and then to the National Archives.
It will be sold by David N. Redden, a Sotheby's vice chairman who sold a copy of the Declaration of Independence for a hammer price of $7.4 million in 2000. That copy had been tucked behind a $4 flea-market painting. The buyers were the television producer Norman Lear, who created shows like "All in the Family" and "Maude," and the Internet entrepreneur David Hayden.
Mr. Redden was also one of the auctioneers at the sale of items from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's estate in 1996. That auction included a $574,500 humidor from President John F. Kennedy and a $415,000 rocking chair.
Mr. Redden arranged the Magna Carta auction quietly, so quietly that Sotheby's did not tell its own employees why it was changing arrangements for other auctions. James Zemaitis, the director of Sotheby's 20th-century design department, said he was asked to give up a room at Sotheby's headquarters on York Avenue at East 72nd Street that he had reserved for a pre-auction exhibition of his own.
"All they told me was: 'David Redden is selling this really important document, the most important document of all. Can you give up this room for us?' " he recalled. "And I'm like, 'Sure, but what is he selling, the Magna Carta?' "
Tags: New, World, Order, United, States, Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Boston, Tea, Party, Washington, Law, Liberty, Freedom, Revolution, Patriots, Militia
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