An original copy of the Magna Carta is on display at Sotheby's in New York City.
An original copy of the Magna Carta is on display at Sotheby's in New York City. - 


Renita Jablonski: There are only a handful of written documents that can fetch tens of million dollars at auction. One of them is expected to do that tonight. It's more than 700 years old, it's English, and it arguably had some effect on me being able to tell you this story.

If you haven't guessed, I'm talking about the Magna Carta. Here's Jeremy Hobson with more.

Jeremy Hobson: The document guaranteeing the rights of man was signed by England's King John in 1215.

Paul Cousins: It says to the executive that there are limits to executive power.

A principle, says Professor Paul Cousins of Boston University, that remains key on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cousins: It's from Magna Carta that both the British system of a sovereign parliament and the American system of a written constitution were derived.

The one up for sale tonight is one of just 17 original copies in existence.

Sotheby's vice chairman David Redden expects bids in the $20-30 million range. He bases that largely on the only auction he can compare this to.

David Redden: The last time we sold a first printing of a Declaration of Independence was seven and a half years ago, that brought $8.1 million. That's not as rare as Magna Carta.

The money raised tonight will go to the Perot Foundation, which purchased the document for $1.5 million in 1984.

I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

Follow Jeremy Hobson at @jeremyhobson