By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
The 710-year-old handwriting is small and neat, but the brown ink clings so precariously to the hard surface of the animal skin that some of the phrases have been washed away by water.
Still legible are the Latin words for "liberties," "granted" and "in perpetuity," and still evident is the majesty of the document as a cornerstone of democracy.
Yesterday, as a security guard stood by, delighted officials at the National Archives gently pulled back a black velvet cloth to reveal the copy of the Magna Carta they almost lost on the auction block last year.
As a throng of reporters and photographers crowded around a table to see the "Great Charter," Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein praised Washington businessman David M. Rubenstein, who saved for the government the only copy of the document existing in the United States.
The Magna Carta, essentially an early Bill of Rights bestowed in 1215 and reaffirmed by a series of 13th-century English monarchs, is considered by historians to be a guidepost for the American founding fathers 500 years later.
"Today we celebrate the return to the National Archives of one of the most important documents in history," Weinstein said during an afternoon ceremony at the archives headquarters building downtown. "Magna Carta has proved ageless. The principles embodied in it have endured through the centuries."
Rubenstein, who grew up in a blue-collar family in Baltimore, said he was honored to be able to give something back to the country where he has prospered. He said the document is on permanent loan.
Rubenstein is the co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that manages $75 billion in assets around the world. He was a domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
The archives' Magna Carta is one of four copies of the version granted in 1297 by Edward I, the archives said. There are 13 other known versions, dating back to the original that was extracted by English barons from King John.
The archives' version was owned for centuries by a family of English earls. In 1984, it was purchased for $1.5 million by a foundation run by Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot and lent to the archives, officials said.
The document was displayed downtown for 20 years. Last year, Perot decided to put it up for auction, and in September it was taken in its stainless steel and Plexiglas case to Sotheby's auction house in New York.
Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the archives' Center for the National Archives Experience, did not think it would be back.
The auction was held in late December. Rubenstein said yesterday that he learned about the auction the day before it was to happen. Fearing the document would be taken out of the country, he bought it for $21.3 million and vowed to return it to the archives. "The only place that's appropriate for that in the United States is the National Archives," he said.
"I come from a relatively modest background," Rubenstein said. He said his business success "made me really feel that I owed a lot to our country, and I wanted to repay it in a modest way."
He and Weinstein pulled the cover off the case, setting off a volley of camera clicks.
The heavy case is designed to moderate humidity and keep out as much oxygen as possible, said conservator Terry Boone. Oxygen causes deterioration, she said.
"It is in incredibly great condition, especially for its age," Boone said. "In the almost 25 years that we've had it here at the National Archives, we haven't seen any change at all."
The 15-inch-by-17-inch document is written in a vegetable-based ink on what is probably calf skin, Boone said. The ink is not absorbed, as happens with paper, but actually sits on the surface. "The ink doesn't bite in," she said, "so it's more likely to move."
Pinkert said the document's importance is simple. It acknowledges, he said, that "the king, too, has to obey the law."