By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Write
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Washington business titan David Rubenstein said yesterday he would return the only copy of the Magna Carta in the United States to the National Archives, just hours after paying $21.3 million for the 710-year-old document at an auction in New York.
Rubenstein, co-founder of the D.C.-based Carlyle Group, bought the one-page, 2,500-word tract at Sotheby's late Tuesday, and said he would place it on permanent loan to the National Archives.
The document is one of only 17 copies of the 13th-century agreement known to be in existence. Its previous owner was Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who had loaned it to the National Archives after acquiring it from a British family in 1984.
Translation: Money changes hands. Document stays put.
"It's still at Sotheby's at the moment, but I've been in touch with the National Archives, and I'll leave it to their experts to bring it back," Rubenstein said in a telephone interview yesterday from New York. "I'm not going to get in a U-Haul and drive it down there myself. . . . It was surprising to me that something this important might leave our country. I thought it would be a good thing if I could play a role and keep it in the country."
Perot told reporters Tuesday that he would donate proceeds from the sale -- he had paid $1.5 million for it -- to charities supported by the Perot Foundation.
Susan Cooper, spokeswoman for the archives, said yesterday that it was unclear when the document would return to its display space in the West Rotunda Gallery. It was on display from the mid-1980s through Sept. 20, in a room adjacent to the display of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Rubenstein, deputy domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter, spoke yesterday of the document's monumental worth, as the Magna Carta ("Great Charter") is one of the founding documents of Western law, human rights and personal freedoms. It was an agreement between English barons and an oppressive monarchy that established the rights of the individual and placed limits on the power of the monarch. Originally presented to King John in 1215, it was re-signed with successive monarchs. The copy sold yesterday dates to 1297 and bears the wax seal of King Edward I.
It was eventually incorporated into English law, and later became both inspiration and a source document for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Fifteen of the 17 copies are in the United Kingdom. One is now Rubenstein's; the only other copy is in Australia.
Rubenstein, a native of Baltimore, co-founded the Carlyle Group, a private equities firm, in 1987. The firm manages $75 billion in assets from 33 offices around the world, according to the company's Web site.
Rubenstein said yesterday his purchase was largely due to chance. Traveling abroad last week, he said, he spotted a newspaper story about the impending sale. He went to look at the document on display at the auction house Monday evening, then returned the next night to the auction.
"I made it by five minutes. The traffic was terrible. The bidding started about two minutes later. It was the kind of thing that if I had spent a lot of time thinking about it, I might have done something different."