Einstein's (very cool) leather jacket heads to auction

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Albert Einstein's jacket appeared on the cover of Time magazine.(Credit: Christies)

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By all available measures, Albert Einstein has become one of the strongest personal brand names in history, and next week, the Brown 1931 Levi Strauss Leather Jacket worn by Science's rock star is going to auction. Worn on the cover of Time Magazine, and one of the perennial genius' favourites, the jacket is estimated by Christie's to sell for between US$55,000 and $80,000. We're expecting it to fetch a lot more, and here's why.

Star quality is a rare and seemingly intangible commodity. It's the x-factor in many large business equations from film industry box office through brand ambassadors, celebrity endorsement and all the way down to the choice of local TV and radio hosts. Unlike the real world of physics where conservation of energy applies, some people have manifested the ability to create value from a touch, a midas touch, even after they are dead.

The same names come up repeatedly across multiple categories in our "most expensive items at auction" research: Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, John Lennon, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson ... all names with massive box office while they were alive.

At auction, there are many names with a stellar multiplication factor beyond the obvious entertainers: people who have influenced history as a leader, politician, captain of industry, artist, musician, sports star ... people with personal qualities that resonate with a behemoth marketplace ... items with a connection to Princess Diana, Princess Grace, Audrey Hepburn, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Yves St Laurent all command big prices at auction.

Many people don't enter the pantheon of celebrity while they are still alive. Indeed, many people earn more in death than they did in life and it's no coincidence that those individuals with the highest auction multiples (Monroe, McQueen, Lennon, Taylor, Jackson) can be regularly found on Time's Top Earning Dead Celebrity List. Included on that list are Charles Schultz (Peanuts) and Theodor Giesel (Dr. Seuss), James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Lee, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash.

In 2015, Albert Einstein entered Time's list at #6, just behind Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and John Lennon. He's an unlikely candidate for most charismatic personal brand of all time, given he rarely spoke in public, and wasn't in film, TV or music, but that's the league he's now playing in six decades after his death. By all available measures, Albert Einstein has become one of the strongest personal brand names in history.

Rights clearance and licensing agency Greenlight represents the estate of Albert Einstein and is largely responsible for generating the licensing revenues which have propelled the genial scientist into the upper echelons of Time's Top Earning Dead Celebrity listing, carefully maintaining Einstein's facebook page, which has 18.5 million followers.

Greenlight also represents Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen, Maria Callas, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, John Wayne, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Buzz Aldrin and Marvin Gaye. Quite a roster!

Touched by genius is a phrase oft bandied about by sports commentators, but it definitely describes the crazy-haired eccentric Albert Einstein, who has become not only science's pin-up boy, but one whose star will never set.

Albert Einstein made a handful of discoveries that changed our understanding of the universe – his contribution will never be obscured by the clutter of time because he has a place in history alongside Nikolas Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and maybe Crick & Watson. He changed everything before him.

He also has a full hand of brand values – good humour, sincerity, kindness and pacifism, yet he is also the embodiment of perspective, wisdom and genius.

We've written previously about the Steve McQueen effect, Marilyn Monroe memorabilia prices, and the rise of Eric Clapton's midas touch (a truly rare case because this auction price multiplication effect is usually only associated with dead celebrities) and the prices their memorabilia command at auction. However, our soon-to-be-published research to compile the most valuable scientific documents unearthed a new and quite unlikely member of that list: Albert Einstein.

Time Magazine's "Person of the Century" is a most unlikely superstar. The following is the introduction to that most famous of the many awards won by Einstein: He was the embodiment of pure intellect, the bumbling professor with the German accent, a comic cliche in a thousand films. Instantly recognizable, like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, Albert Einstein's shaggy-haired visage was as familiar to ordinary people as to the matrons who fluttered about him in salons from Berlin to Hollywood. Yet he was unfathomably profound — the genius among geniuses who discovered, merely by thinking about it, that the universe was not as it seemed.

Einstein, like Copernicus and Newton, changed the foundations of all that we thought we knew. He changed our perceptions of both time and space, he proved that atoms were real, and he showed that mass and energy are the same thing. He single-handedly revolutionized every aspect of theoretical physics, and he did so while working a nine-to-five job at the Patents Office in Berne. The supreme hero giving hope to all those who work two jobs along their path in life, Einstein changed humankind after working eight hours, not to mention fighting with his mentally-ill wife.

Einstein contributed three documents to the top 50, another three to the top 100 and as our research progressed, we kept finding more and more of his personal letters, postcards, x-rays, glasses, handprints ad infinitum that have fetched astonishing amounts on the auction block, with many selling for six-figure sums and more.

Celebrity scientists are a rare commodity

Celebrity is rare in the scientific domain. Only a handful of scientists have achieved international celebrity status with perhaps only Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Carl Sagan, Sir David Attenborough, Tim Berners-Lee and perhaps Buckminster Fuller achieving any widespread public recognition as scientists during their lifetime. One wonders what it might be about theoretical physicists that might lead to such disproportionate conspicuity amongst scientists given the difficulty the public might have in understanding what they do.

Sir Isaac Newton was the first superstar scientist, rising to unprecedented national recognition for a scientist from very humble beginnings. Upon his death, Newton lay in state at Westminster Abbey for a week, with his pallbearers including three Earls, two Dukes and the Lord Chancellor. French philosopher Voltaire attended his funeral, reflecting, "this famous Newton, this destroyer of the Cartesian system, died in March, anno 1727. His countrymen honoured him in his lifetime, and interred him as though he had been a king who had done well by his subjects."

This was a time before mass media and it is interesting to reflect that for many years after his paper on relativity was published, Einstein too remained an obscure scientist.

An overnight success – 14 years later

In late 1919, fourteen years after his first paper on relativity, Arthur Eddington presented photographic evidence that light appeared to bend in gravitational fields during an eclipse, just as Einstein's theory of general relativity had predicted.

Newspapers across the world picked up the story and Einstein, his most unlikely theory vindicated, became a global celebrity overnight. The above clippings are from the New York Times dated November 10, November 16 and December 3, 1919.

Since then the frizzy-haired non-conformist has become increasingly famous, the archetypal eccentric professor who was forever the inquisitive child.

$6.5 million for his Theory of Special Relativity

Einstein famously threw out the original hand-written manuscript of his Theory of Relativity when the paper was published in 1905, but made another hand-written copy in 1943 to raise money for the war effort. The paper was purchased at a 1944 auction held by the Kansas City Womens Club by the Kansas City Life Insurance Company for $6.5 million, which donated the manuscript to the U.S Library of Congress, where it still resides. Despite the date of the auction, only the Leonardo da Vinci codex (purchased by Bill Gates for $30,802,500 in 1994) and John James Audubon's "Birds of America" ($11,570,496 - £7,321,250 at a Sotheby's auction in December, 2010) are the only scientific documents to have ever sold for more money at auction.

$2.1 million for Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt

A letter from Albert Einstein to Franklin D Roosevelt fetched $2,096,000 in 2002. It was no ordinary letter, becoming arguably the single most influential letter penned during the 20th century.

In 1939, a group of physicists, several of whom had fled Hitler's Germany, met to discuss concerns regarding Germany's development of a uranium-based weapon system. It was decided to inform President Roosevelt of their concerns and, as previous attempts to inform the U.S. administration had fallen on deaf ears, Albert Einstein (who had a personal relationship with the Roosevelts) was enrolled and a letter informing the President about the dangers of a nuclear chain reaction bomb was drafted for Einstein's signature.

From the auction description: The impulse which led to the letter originated not with Einstein but with the Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard, a former student of Einstein's, who, like Fermi, Teller, Einstein and a host of other European scientists and researchers, had been driven from his homeland to the United States by the threat of Hitler's European aggression and persecution. In fact, the collaboration of Einstein and Szilard, motivated by their fears of German war preparations and nuclear research, generated not one, but two nearly identical letters: both composed at the same time, both typed on the same typewriter and finally, both signed with the same pen by Einstein. One ... was delivered to the President. ... The other, alternate version of that historic communication, retained by Szilard, is offered here, together with Einstein's handwritten letter transmitting both letters to Szilard.

Walter Isaacson is known for many things (Chairman and Editor of CNN, Editor of Time magazine, and more recently, the authorized biography of Steve Jobs), but in his 2007 definitive biography of Albert Einstein, "Einstein: His Life and Universe", he captured the very moment when Einstein became aware of the potential of nuclear weapons. "Sitting at a bare wooden table on the screen porch of the sparsely furnished cottage, Szilard explained the process of how an explosive chain reaction could be produced in uranium layered with graphite by the neutrons released from nuclear fission. "I never thought of that!" Einstein interjected. He asked a few questions, went over the process for fifteen minutes, and then quickly grasped the implications."

The letter was written on August 2, 1939 and delivered by Alexander Sachs to the President on October 11, 1939. After taking in the letter's contents, President Roosevelt told his military adviser General Edwin M. Watson, "This requires action."

That action became the Manhattan Project.

An excellent account of the circumstances of the letter and it's consequences appeared in the New York Times in August, 1964 by Ralph E. Lapp, entitled, "The Einstein Letter that Started It All." There's an equally fascinating report in the Atlantic of Einstein's subsequent regrets in sending the letter, which reports Einstein as having said, "Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger."

$1.1 million for Einstein's Theory of General Relativity

Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity was presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences over four lectures in November 1915, and published on December 2, 1915. The General Relativity Theory built on the insights of Einstein's first theory of relativity, the Special Relativity theory from 1950. This 72-page autographed manuscript, written in German, in either Prague or Zurich in 1912, is one of only three of Einstein's early papers on the Theory of Relativity known to survive. This is the earliest and the longest of these, and was the only one never to have been published.

The other early relativity manuscripts are the 11-page "Zum Relativitäts-Problem" ("On the Relativity Problem") written in 1914 and published in Scientia 15 (1914), which is believed to be in private hands, and the 45-page "Die Grundlagen der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie" written in 1916 and published in the Annalen der Physik 49 (1916), now in the Schwadron Collection in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. This document fetched $1,155,000 at a Sotheby's auction in 1987 and went to auction again in 1997, with an estimated price of $4 million to $6 million. A high bid of $3.3 million did not secure the sale.

Beyond the top 50 list, there's a signed autograph manuscript of his 1933 George A. Gibson Lecture at the University of Glasgow that fetched $578,500, and an autograph manuscript (with Michele Besso) that sold for $398,500 in 1996, and subsequently fetched $569,000 in 2002.

Other scientific Einstein artifacts and memorabilia of note include a collection of 130 offprints of his scientific papers that fetched $314,500, an unpublished autograph Einstein manuscript illustrating the special theory of relativity for a layman that sold for $230,500 in June, 2008, a signed unpublished autograph scientific manuscript in which Einstein explores the construction of a Unified Field Theory that sold for $230,500 in February, 2009, plus hundreds of other items that have sold for startling amounts at auction, many of them decidedly unscientific in nature.

$3.0 million for Einstein's letter on Religion

A two-page letter from Einstein to philosopher Eric Gutkind dated January 3, 1954 sold for £207,600 ($404,147) in May, 2008, with Richard Dawkins among the bidders. In 2012, the letter was auctioned on eBay, fetching $3,000,000.

In the letter, Einstein expressed his views on religion: "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends, which are nevertheless pretty childish... No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this." Another letter in which Einstein expressed his views on religion sold for £62,300 ($92,377) in December, 2008.

Einstein and the Russian Spy


Many of Einstein's personal letters have surfaced over the six decades since his death, almost all fetching huge sums at auction. In one auction in 1996, a trove of Einstein letters sold at a Christies auction in multiple lots totaling $878,500, the most expensive being a number of letters between Einstein and his first wife Mileva Maric, which fetched $442,500.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the letters that have come to light since his death were those exchanged between Einstein and Russian socialite Margerita Konenkova. In a time when J. Edgar Hoover's FBI vigorously pursued Einstein as a possible spy, they completely managed to miss his love affair with Konenkova.

Margerita Konenkova was a former lawyer who spoke five languages and lived in Greenwich Village with her husband, Russian Realist sculptor, Sergei Konenkov, sometimes referred to as the "Russian Rodin." They were introduced by Einstein's wife Elsa, and the couples became friends, with Sergei producing a famous sculpture of Einstein (above right with a sculpture of Margerita top right in the photo).

When Elsa died in 1936, Margerita became a regular visitor to the Einstein home and she and Einstein became lovers sometime prior to 1941, continuing the affair until she returned to Russia in 1946.

The letters between Einstein and Margarita Konenkova were expected to fetch between $250,000 and $350,000 at a Sotheby's auction in 1998, but failed to meet reserve with a high bid of $180,000. It was those letters that precipitated the revelations that Margarita had been secretly employed by Russia's intelligence service, though there is compelling evidence that Einstein knew of her relationship with Soviet intelligence and considered it irrelevant.

From the obscure to the ridiculous, Einstein memorabilia sells incredibly well at auction. In 2010, X-rays of Einstein's skull sold at a Julien's auction for $38,750, a signed impression of Albert's handprints has sold for $85,000 and a print of the image at right (with his tongue poking out) from his 72nd birthday party sold at auction for $56,250 in January, 2015.

Next week, given all of the above, we expect to be adding a jacket to the list. The Levi Strauss Leather Jacket worn by Science's rock star on the cover of Time Magazine, and one of his favourites, is expected to sell for between $55,000 and $80,000. We're expecting it to fetch a lot more. There is no mention of size in the auction description, but Albert was 175 cm (5 ft 9 in) tall and of slight build.

For those seeking something different in the way of genius memorabilia, there's also Einstein's Swiss silver open-face pocket watch (estimated at $20,000 to $26,000) and Einstein's childhood building blocks (estimated at $6,500 to $10,500).

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