Arguably the most important document ever to be auctioned goes on sale Tuesday when the Magna Carta, an 800-year-old English royal manuscript, goes under the hammer at Sotheby's in New York.
The royal charter, dated 1297 and bearing the wax seal of King Edward I, enshrined the rights of man into English law and is considered the precursor of such landmark historical documents as the US Declaration of Independence.
Sotheby's Vice Chairman and Tuesday night's auctioneer David Redden described the vellum manuscript, which is expected to fetch 20 to 30 million dollars, as quite simply "the most important document in the world."
"It's the great-great-great-grandfather of some of the great documents -- at least in America -- of freedom, such as the declaration of independence, the constitution or the bill of rights," he told AFP ahead of the auction.
"All of these have a common ancestor, which is Magna Carta."
The manuscript is the only one of 17 remaining examples ever likely to be sold. Most of the rest belong to Britain's national archives, cathedrals or universities while the only other copy outside Britain belongs to Australia.
The manuscript, most likely made of sheepskin, enshrined the rule of law in England at a time of disagreements between King John and the English barons. It was first issued in 1215 and confirmed as English law in 1297.
Redden described the document, which required the king to accept that he was bound by law in the same way as his subjects, as "the first rung on the ladder to freedom" and "a talisman of liberty."
As well as enshrining the concept that no man is above the law, the document also establishes the right to a speedy trial by a jury of one's peers.
"It's actually amazing that this has come to auction, it's quite remarkable. It's the only time Magna Carta has ever been sold at auction and it's quite possibly the only time it ever will be," Redden explained.
He said that while other documents could possibly rival Magna Carta for historical significance, none were ever likely to be sold, making Tuesday's sale potentially the most important manuscript auction now or in the future.
"There are other extraordinary documents, the draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson's hand comes to mind, but that will never come to auction," he explained.
Bidders would likely include wealthy individuals or institutions, he said, adding that the US National Archives in Washington, where the document has been on display for most of the past 23 years, would like to see it return.
He hoped that whoever acquired the manuscript would continue making it available for members of the public to appreciate.
"I do think this is one of the great inspirational documents of our civilization and therefore it really doesn't do its work unless it's out in the open where people can see it."
The proceeds from the sale of the Magna Carta -- Latin for "Great Charter" -- are to go to a charity set up by billionaire and twice US presidential candidate in the 1990s, Ross Perot, whose foundation bought it in 1984.
The document previously belonged to the Brudenells of Northamptonshire, England, who owned it since the late 14th or early 15th centuries.
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