Rare vellum Aristotle "de Animabilis" goes to auction - the foundation of the study of biology

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The vellum copy of de Animalibus will be auctioned on 8 June, 2016 by Bonhams

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A Bonhams New York auction of Fine Books and Manuscripts at 1 pm on Wednesday (8 June, 2016) afternoon will make compelling viewing for those who value the documents which laid the foundations of scientific knowledge and method. The recently rediscovered 15th-century illuminated edition of Aristotle's de Animabilis (consisting of three texts: De historia animalium; De partibus animalium; and De generatione animalium) is conservatively valued at $300,000 to $500,000 by Bonhams, but might well go well beyond that price (see bottom of the article for precedents).

Though this book was printed in medieval Italy in 1476, and translated into Latin by Greek scholar Theodore Gaza, it was written 2,400 years ago by Aristotle (384 to 322 BC), and is unquestionably the foundation of the scientific study of biology.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this book provided the "first systematic and comprehensive study of animals. There was nothing of similar scope and sophistication again until the 16th century."

Similarly, Grolier Medicine's entry: "Historia animalium is an immense collection of biological data – anatomical, physiological, behavioral – on over five hundred species of animals. Aristotle's interest lay in identifying and classifying groups of animals and in explaining their functioning as a part of nature, and it was the data reported in Historia animalium that provided the basis for his philosophical analyses of relationships between structure, function, and purpose. In De partibus animalium he explored these 'links of causation' in the various groups of animals. In De generatione animalium he dealt with the principles of animal generation, including organs and secretions, gave a detailed account of generation in the different groups of animals, answered various questions connected with generation, and finally gave an explanation of development after birth and of the differences between individuals of the same species."

Pages from the vellum copy of de Animalibus that will be auctioned on 8 June, 2016 by Bonhams

For those who want to take a look for themselves and don't read Latin, there's a complete English translation available at the MIT Classics Archive.

Aristotle's De animalibus is the earliest known work of empirical natural history and as such it was a milestone in the development of western thought.

Aristotle (right) studied under Plato (left) at his academy for nearly 20 years. Of more than 200 known Aristotle works, only 31 have survived.

Aristotle was a great teacher, establishing a school at the Lyceum and influencing history not just through his writings and thought on so many subjects, but through his students, the most well-known being Alexander the Great, whom Aristotle taught for five years. Aristotle's other students included AristoxenusDicaearchusDemetrius of PhalerumEudemos of RhodesHarpalusHephaestionMenoMnason of PhocisNicomachus, and Theophrastus.

What will it sell for?

Just what can we expect at auction on Wednesday is anybody's guess, and will depend on just how many enlightened persons of science recognize the opportunity and have the wherewithall. The last time this book (pictured above right) was sold at auction was 1891 (it sold for $850), only two exist on vellum (the other is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) and hence there's unlikely to be another opportunity to obtain a copy of this beauty or provenance again in this lifetime.

For the record, we looked back through the auction archives for a few precedents of significant scientific works sold at auction.

When the lost Archimedes palimpsest was auctioned by Christies on 29 October, 1998, it was valued at between $800,000 and $1.2 million yet fetched almost double that amount with a final price (including commissions) of $2,202,500.

Similarly, when Christies sold Abel Buell's 1784 map of the United States (the first to show the "stars and stripes") in 2010, it was estimated it would sell for between $500,000 and $700,000, yet fetched almost triple the high estimate at $2,098,500.

When a rare (1543) first edition of "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" by Copernicus came up for auction in 2008, Christies estimated it would sell for between $900,000 and $1,200,000, but it eventually fetched $2,210,500.

The father of anatomy, Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), published his magnum opus "De humani corporis fabrica libri septem" in 1543 and when the dedication copy given to Roman Emperor Charles V by Vesalius came up for auction in 1998 it was estimated by Christies to sell for $400,000 to $600,000, yet sold for $1,652,500.

Finally, when a dedication (to King James II) copy of Isaac Newton's landmark "Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica" came up for auction at Christies in 2013, the estimate was $400,000 to $600,000, yet the book fetched $2,517,000. Similarly, when Newton's other great work "Opticks" sold at Sotheby's in December 2015, it carried an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000, yet sold for $1,330,000.

History shows we have consistently and significantly undervalued the most important scientific documents in history. Our guess is that when the hammer falls shortly after 1 pm in New York on Wednesday, the Aristotle master work will be just the 29th scientific document in history to have fetched seven figures at auction.

The auction will be streamed live from the Bonhams site from 1 pm New York time (13:00 EDT), and as the Aristotle offering is Lot 1, don't be late or you'll miss it.

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