Document geeks will be happy to know that a 1297 version of the Magna Carta has a spiffy new home in Washington at the David M. Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives. Rubenstein, a D.C.-based billionaire whose dollars are also fixing the broken Washington Monument, told Whispers how he surprisingly won the document at auction after its previous owner, former presidential candidate Ross Perot, put it up for sale.
"I saw it in a Sotheby's exhibition. I was told it was going to be sold the next day and probably to leave the country, so I thought it was important that this document, which had really been influential in the Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, should stay in our country," Rubenstein, a co-founder of the Carlyle group, explained.
So the billionaire philanthropist headed to New York to win the only copy of the Magna Carta resident in the United States, but didn't get to hold up a bid paddle. "I wanted to have that," he said of the paddle. "But they put me in a little side room and said just do it by telephone because they didn't want people to know who the winners were." Rubenstein won, bidding $19 million for it in December 2007, with the full amount --plus fee and commissions -- coming to $21.3 million, according to the New York Times. "I didn't think I was going to win because I thought there were so many other people more interested in it than me," Rubenstein told Whispers. (It's true, many considered Rubenstein's bid a bargain, with that copy of the Magna Carta expected to go for more than $30 million.)
Winning the document meant keeping it in Washington and at the Archives, where it had previously been on display. "It's in pretty good shape, you know, how would you feel if you were 800 years old?" Rubenstein said, standing alongside it, pointing out that after all these years the text of the document is barely smudged. (He also admitted he couldn't read a word. "I cannot read medieval Latin, I have no language skills, I'm barely able to read English," he laughed.)
Rubenstein also sprung for a state of-the-art-case built by the National Institute for Standards and Technology to keep it in good condition for years to come. "It's the most elaborate case you could possibly get and it will last at least another 800 years," Rubenstein said.
The Magna Carta is central to a new exhibit, entitled "Records of Rights," which opened Wednesday. It uses Archives documents to tell a more complicated story about rights in America. Noting the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution plus Bill of Rights, Rubenstein explained how these Archives documents symbolized the great freedoms of the Western world. "But these documents were really giving rights and freedoms to people who were white and male and generally pretty wealthy," he said.
The new exhibit focuses on three populations -- African-Americans, women and immigrant communities -- and their fights for greater freedom. The displays contain documents on sadder chapters of American history, like slavery and Japanese-American internment, but also hopeful signs too, such as a copy of the 14th Amendment, which extended the original Bill of Rights to the states following the Civil War.
Rubenstein assigned the exhibit a lofty goal: "Making sure that people realize that we don't have these rights automatically, we have to fight to get them, and once we get them, we have to preserve them."