Should artifacts like Magna Carta be auctioned into the private domain?

Historical collectibles, such as Custer's battle flag, are fetching huge prices on the auction market. But at what cost?

If you have a passion for world history, very deep pockets, and a "Mission Impossible"-grade alarm system, then you might already have imagined Magna Carta as a storied wall-hanging you could call your own.

Sotheby's is set to auction one of fewer than 20 known original copies of the 2,500-word document – and among its earliest, dated 1297 – in New York in early December. It's expected to fetch as much as $30 million.

That same month in London, Christie's plans to sell a set of pearls owned by Marie Antoinette and spirited out of France a year before her execution. A high bid of about $800,000 is expected.

That's about $90,000 less than General Custer's personal battle flag, a bit tattered after Little Big Horn, brought to a recent sale in historic Gettysburg, Pa., by Heritage Auction Gallery of Dallas. (Ulysses S. Grant's presentation sword sold for twice that amount.)

Many collectibles – from old high-school yearbooks to sports memorabilia to great masters paintings – draw part of their appeal from links to figures and events of varying levels of importance. High-end "historical collectibles" sit gleaming at the pinnacle, luring preservationists and competitive collectors to history's highlights – and raising questions about the marketplace pricing and the private ownership of humankind's collective past.

"There's now an increasing sort of awareness and outcry about the sale of antiquities, and [about] their collection," says Alex Bauer, a lecturer in the Princeton University Writing Program and editor of the International Journal of Cultural Property.

Besides a rise in activism and a leveraging of international law by small nations and ethnic groups– who seek a reversal of plundering in "a postcolonial world," he says – attention is drawn by the vast amount of private money at play among collectors, and the proliferation of deals, including the online trade in smaller objects.

"It tends to capture the imagination," says Professor Bauer, referring to collector-world whispers about traffic in cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals.

"There has been a spike in [all kinds of] collectibles at the high end," says Jim Halperin, co-chairman at Heritage, the Dallas firm. "It's very complicated, the reasons people collect things, and all very theoretical." Reasons range from social interaction and nostalgia to a competitive challenge, he says.

Most high-end collectors keep very low public profiles. Object valuation, too, can be hard to forecast – whether the items are of historical import or not. The asking price of duck decoys, for example, might rise and fall with the popularity of primitive art. Popular-culture-themed objects – important tokens of modern history – can generally be counted upon to soar.

"We sold the flag that was on the back of Peter Fonda's jacket in 'Easy Rider,' " Mr. Halperin says. "We didn't have any idea [what it would bring]. We estimated $50,000 and started at $25,000," he says. "It brought $90,000." Halperin's firm also just finished a highly lucrative auction of space memorabilia, some of it equipment used by Buzz Aldrin. (Space-age history, it seems, has its own special allure. Last winter a brown M&M that left Earth's atmosphere aboard Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne in 2004 reportedly sold elsewhere for $1,500.)

In the US, activity in the top-dollar private sales of more serious historical objects surged in the mid-1990s, when Bill Gates bought a Da Vinci notebook for more than $30 million and the desk at which President Kennedy signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty sold for $1.4 million.

In a rare public-to-private payment for a historical artifact, federal arbitrators ruled in 1999 that the US government should pay $16 million to the heirs of Abraham Zapruder for the 26-second film of Kennedy's assassination. But, in the US, government is more typically hands-off.

"'Moral rights' legislation exists in many of the EU and other countries," says Bauer. It essentially gives government a first right of refusal on purchasing objects of national import. "In the US we tend to give to [private buyers] carte blanche to do what they want with their [acquisitions]."

In recent years, there have been cases where public outcry has pushed states or the US government to intervene, such as when a copy of the Declaration of Independence was found in Maine. "I think it was the copy given to the representatives from Maine at the signing, and the owner wanted to sell it to an out-of-state collector," he says. "Local outcry forced the state to purchase it for the state collection. But this is the exceptional case."

"Nothing is wrong with private ownership of historically important documents and objects," says Joseph Sax, professor emeritus at Berkeley and author of "Throwing Darts at a Rembrandt," a book about public and private rights with regard to cultural treasures. "Collectors can and often do play a socially valuable role in preserving things that public institutions cannot or do not (at the time) think worthy of protecting," Dr. Sax writes in an e-mail. "But ownership of things that are of historical, artistic, or scientific importance carries with it a moral – if not a legal – responsibility to care for them, and to make them reasonably accessible to scholars, biographers, and others with a legitimate interest in them."

In the case of Magna Carta headed for auction this winter, its owner, the Perot Foundation, had been displaying it at the National Archives in Washington and has said it aims to spread the proceeds among causes including helping wounded soldiers. Its new owner is likely to follow suit.

"Most serious collectors acknowledge that they are effectively trustees of [historically significant] objects for a limited time," Sax says, "while at the same time being owners who can benefit from the objects' possession and whatever economic value they may have. This is not an either-or situation."

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