MICHELE NORRIS, host:
There are new laws and then there are old ones, really old ones. Say, the Magna Carta. That's the agreement signed in 1215 between King John and rebellious English barons. It mentions things like the right to a trial and the idea that no one is above the law. It's considered one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy. There are 17 versions of the Magna Carta, the only one in the U.S. is owned by Ross Perot and it's up for auction tonight at Sotheby's in New York City.
NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER: What you notice first is the beautiful chancery script, tiny letters handwritten in Latin on animal skin or vellum. There are some missing words and water stains, but it's in great condition for something more than 700 years old. David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's, reads a portion of the Latin.
Mr. DAVID REDDEN (Vice Chairman, Sotheby's): (Speaking foreign language)
To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny, or delay right or justice.
ADLER: In return for their oath of allegiance, the king ceded to the barons' various rights. All kinds of ideas and the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution owe a debt to the Magna Carta.
Mr. REDDEN: It talked about trial by jury, a trial by jury of one's peers, the right to a speedy trial. But I still believe the most important thing about Magna Carta is its mythic significance. We can point to a time; we can say this is where freedom and liberty began. This is the antecedent, the progenitor of the great documents of freedom of our country.
ADLER: There might be a bit of hyperbole here. The ancient Greeks, among others, might protest. But there is truth here as well. Of the other 16 versions written between 1215 and 1297, the largest collection is at Oxford University. Ross Perot and his foundation decided to put the document up for sale apparently in order to have more money for the foundation's main causes such as health care for wounded soldiers.
The price listed in the auction catalog is $20 to $30 million. But since this may be the only copy, not in institutional hands, all bets are off as to the price of the sale. And think of this for a moment.
Mr. REDDEN: You can sell something as significant as this. And there is no restriction whatsoever about where it goes. None.
ADLER: Redden says most countries have strict rules that limit the export of rare historic treasures. Not the U.S. free market. Those who stop by to see the document like Robert Bare(ph) and Rosie Stub(ph) had strong opinions about where the document should end up.
Mr. ROBERT BARE: It should clearly be in a public domain somehow to inspire people.
Ms. ROSIE STUB: In the museum where everybody can have access to it.
ADLER: Redden says that means some angel has to step up to the plate if the Magna Carta is going to stay in this country. The question is will someone and who will that be? We'll know tonight.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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