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Thursday, May 1, 2008

History for Sale: Why Not?

Private Property and Public Benefit Are Not Incompatible

Sold!” cried the Sotheby’s auctioneer on the night of December 18, 2007, as one of history’s oldest political documents changed hands. It was Magna Carta, or rather a copy of it that dated to 1297. The buyer was not a government but an individual, a Washington lawyer named David Rubenstein. He paid $21.3 million for it and promptly announced he wanted his newly acquired private property to stay on public view at the National Archives in the nation’s capital.

A privately owned Magna Carta? Aren’t such important things supposed to be public property? A couple of “educated” American students visiting Britain in mid-December certainly thought so. For a story that aired on CNN about the auction at Sotheby’s, they were interviewed at the British Library in London while gazing on another of the great charter’s copies on display there.

“I couldn’t imagine that there is still a privately owned copy of the Magna Carta floating around the world. It seems really incredible that any one person should actually have that in their possession,” one of the young scholars pronounced. “Personally, I hope the government or some charitable foundation gets a hold of it so that everybody can enjoy seeing it,” chimed the other. Both assumed that private property and public benefit, at least with regard to historical preservation, were incompatible.

The Magna Carta copy that Rubenstein bought will not be spirited into his closet because it is the new owner’s wish that it be preserved for public display. While some might say humanity lucked out in this particular instance, it really is just the latest in a rich heritage of private care of documents, manuscripts, and objects of historical significance. Indeed, the very copy Rubenstein bought was previously owned by businessman Ross Perot’s foundation, which in turn had acquired it in 1984 from yet another private owner, the Brudenell family of Britain. Given that record, those students should have sung hosannas to private efforts like that of Rubenstein’s.

The content of books from the ancient world appears to have been brought into the digital age largely through private efforts. Through various eras, libraries, scribes, and printers were supported to a great extent through private patronage.

Ecclesiastical institutions were critical in preserving texts that are important to the Western tradition, points out Dr. Ryan Olson, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and holder of a doctorate in the classics from Oxford University. For example, Olson says, in the sixth century Cassiodorus finished his career as a government official in Ravenna and organized monastic efforts to copy Christian and classical texts. Some work of his monks seems to have ended up in Rome, where it could be more influential. Though the history of transmission can be difficult to trace, scholars have argued that at least one classical work, by Cato, seems to have survived to this day because of Cassiodorus’s efforts. “It is our intention,” Cassiodorus wrote shortly before his death, “to weave into one fabric and assign to proper usage whatever the ancients have handed down to modern custom.”

Borrowing From Cicero

I also learned from Olson that the Roman politician, lawyer, and author Cicero revealed in his letters a network of extensive personal libraries that preserved important books that could be read by members of the public and even borrowed and sent with messengers. Books could be consulted or copied for one’s own library and returned to the owner. If one wanted to look at several books, a personal visit to a private library could be arranged.

The Bodleian Library at Oxford, where Olson once studied, was founded by Sir Thomas Bodley and dedicated in 1602. King James I, on entering the library in August 1605, said its founder should be dubbed “Sir Thomas Godly.” Bodley had spent his considerable personal wealth acquiring books and early manuscripts that have formed the core of one of the most extensive collections in the world. That collection includes among its innumerable treasures a first edition of Don Quixote, a manuscript of Confucius acquired at a time when few could read its Chinese characters, a fourteenth-century copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as first editions of the works of John Milton, who called the library a “most sacred centre,” a “glorious treasure-house” of “the best Memorials of Man.”

Additional examples of historical preservation through private means are, it turns out, legion. Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon acquired a massive assortment of prized artwork. He donated his entire collection (plus $10 million for construction) to start the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands of historic homes and buildings all across America are owned and maintained privately, many of them refurbished and open for public viewing. Even historic lighthouses, once largely public property, are being preserved today by private owners after decades of neglect by government authorities. On and on it goes.

The more one looks into this, the more apparent it is that private efforts have not just been a sideshow in historical preservation. They have been the centerpiece. And why should it be otherwise? Private owners invest their own resources, acquiring an instant and personal interest in the “capital” value of the historical asset. Being a government employee does not make one more interested in, or better equipped to care for, the things we regard as historically valuable than those many private citizens who put their own resources on the line.

By the way, have you ever noticed that the greatest book-burners in history have been governments, not private individuals?

So what’s the problem with a copy of Magna Carta being purchased by a private citizen? Nothing at all. To suggest otherwise is simply to repeat an uninformed and antiquated prejudice. In a civil society of free people, that prejudice should be rare enough to be a museum piece.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is