Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot has bought a 700-year-old copy of the British Magna Carta and given it to the National Archives, where it will be on display alongside the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, according to both Perot and Archives officials.
The copy of the charter was issued by King William I in 1297 as an affirmation of individual rights originally granted in 1215 by King John. It is believed to be one of only 17 extant copies, and it is one of the bases of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.
It will be displayed in the National Archives within a few months, the U.S. deputy archivist said today.
Dallas computer magnate Perot, whose worth was estimated by Forbes magazine recently as $1.4 billion, purchased the document for $1.5 million from the Brudenell family of Northamptonshire in England. One of the family's Earls of Cardigan acquired it during the 16th century.
Perot, a self-described superpatriot, said he had known of the charter's for-sale sign for more than a year, but other projects -- his chairmanship of the Texas Select Committee on Public Education, for example -- distracted him until early August, when he dispatched his lawyer to London to talk dollars and pounds.
"It's the basis of our freedoms, our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence," Perot said. "It's the only Magna Carta that could come to our country, because all others are owned by institutions."
This Magna Carta, a historical outgrowth of the original bill of particulars pressed upon King John by nobles in 1215 at Runnymede, emerged as a list of concessions by King Edward in return for aristocratic support of continuing warfare in Flanders, said Decherd Turner, an expert who flew to London on behalf of Perot to verify its authenticity.
It sets out, with much emphasis on the aristocracy, the idea that individuals hold certain fundamental liberties that no autocrat or government can take away.
"This marked the first time that the Magna Carta's text was entered into English law," said Turner, director of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. "Each charter brought more liberty. There came a time in 1297 when there was no turning back."
Written on animal skin in Latin with vegetable dyes, King Edward's Magna Carta appears creased, but is otherwise in "remarkable" condition, said Tom Luce, Perot's lawyer who handled negotiations.
"I've never bought a Magna Carta, nor a Declaration of Independence," declared Luce, who this weekend plans to fly to London and assume ownership of the document.
Lucas smoothed out the deal during a visit to London the week of the Republican National Convention, he said, and was unaware of any other offers tendered to the Brudenell family.
"That just never came up," Luce said. "I am sure they felt we were sincere and we acted in a timely fashion. They knew Mr. Perot was serious."
In fact, a New York man offered to pay $2 million for the charter around a year ago, but apparently went bankrupt before details could be worked out, various insiders said today.
Perot said, "Several countries tried to buy it, and for one reason or another were not able to get the authorization through their governments and that sort of thing."
One authorization that could have blocked Perot's acquisition would have been denial of an export license by the British government. A week ago, Perot said, he received notice of that license approval.
In London, a library archivist who had previously objected to export of the 700-year-old document declined to comment on Perot's purchase. D.P. Waley, keeper of manuscripts for the London public library, said his duties advising the government Department of Trade precluded any reaction.
Noting that there are other copies of the 1297 charter around, an assistant to the chief manuscript expert at Sotheby's of London said she saw no harm in exporting a copy to the United States. "It's not, after all, the original," said Elizabeth Treip.
Tentative plans are to present the charter in the Archives' Rotunda for two years or so, after which Perot wants to assist in a national tour of museums, said George Scaboo, deputy U.S. archivist.