The 50 most valuable scientific documents of 2017
2017 was a spectacular year in almost every facet of the auction industry specializing in historically significant and storied objects. The world's most valuable painting, gemstone, earrings, wristwatch, manuscript and religious document all changed hands, but as usual, scant regard was paid to the landmark scientific texts that underpin mankind's understanding of the world.
Indeed, the success of the 2017 auction year depends on the way in which it is measured.
The number of documents and manuscripts to sell for more than US$1,000,000 hit its lowest point in many years with just five exceeding that figure, only one of which was scientific in nature.
This compares unfavorably with 2016 (13 documents, three scientific documents), 2015 (11 documents, two scientific documents), 2014 (nine documents, one scientific document), 2013 (nine documents, four scientific documents), 2012 (11 documents, six scientific documents) and 2011 (11 documents, three scientific documents).
Our list of the 50 most valuable scientific documents of 2016 featured three items of immense value (Newton's Principia @ $3.72 million, Besler's Hortus Eystettensis @ $2.55 million, and Rheticus' De Libris Revolutionum @ $2.4 million) yet the 50th entry on our list this year (2017) is within a few dollars of number 50 in 2016.
Einstein shines as usual
The influence of Albert Einstein, science's rock star, is again obvious in our list for this year as a significant cache of correspondence sent by Einstein to his life-long friend Michele Besso found its way to auction, with the most significant letters and postcards fetching $377,635, $150,000, $137,500, $136,941 and $125,000 respectively.
The correspondence with Besso covers not just their shared passion for physics (Besso was his only acknowledged collaborator on the ground-breaking theory of Special Relativity), but every aspect of life, and the letters cover a 50 year period. Those with scientific content have been included and as usual, we've included a bunch of non-scientific documents and objects (marked DNQ) so that comparisons can be made on how the marketplace values significant cultural and religious artifacts.
Aquatint prints from John James Audubon
We decided against giving individual leafs from Birds of America an official position in our listing this year.
The Birds of America is a book by Franco-American ornithologist, naturalist and artist John James Audubon (1785 – 1851), first published as an irregular series between 1827 and 1838. Fewer than 200 sets of the original "elephant edition" (a reference to its size of 99 cm by 66 cm) were published, containing 435 life-sized watercolors of North American birds and this astonishingly beautiful work is now reproduced digitally on the Audubon site for all to behold. Reproduction editions of the books in "baby elephant" format are also available, and given that this book would constitute the majority of the top 10 scientific documents ever sold if we counted the multiple copies that have achieved astronomical prices, the $185 price makes an ideal gift for conservationists and bird lovers.
There are nearly 100 recorded auction sales of bound volumes of Birds of America for prices in excess of $100,000 and seven auction sales in excess of US$3,000,000. The record price for a Birds of America is $11,570,496 (£7,321,250) achieved by Sothebys (London) in December, 2010, but other prices for Birds of America include $8,802,500 by Christie's in March, 2000, $7,922,500 by Christie's in January, 2012, $5,616,000 by Christie's in December, 2005, $3,525,000 by Sotheby's in April, 2014, $3,043,040 (£1,760,000) by Sotheby's in June, 1990 and $3,027,500 by Christie's in October, 1993.
With all known copies so closely held, and speculators now purchasing and dismembering those copies, listing the individual leafs from those books in our annual listing quite literally feels like promoting the ivory trade. Individually, those prints become simple ornithological illustrations and if we included them, our humble annual listing might become too unwieldily, as there are many scientific illustrations that sell individually each year, but not as part of a scientific work. At the same time, we feel we have a duty to report transactions so you'll see those items which would otherwise achieve a position by virtue of price alone, included without an official position (DNQ).
Equal 49th - Autograph signed letter to Michele Besso by Albert Einstein
$125,000 | Christies | July 13, 2017
Translated in parts in the auction description, this four-page letter written from Berlin on January 3, 1916, includes this excerpt: 'The great success of gravitation pleases me extraordinarily. I have the serious intention of writing a book soon about special and general relativity, and yet have difficulty in getting started, as with all things that don't spring from a burning desire. And yet if I don't do it, the theory will not be understood, no matter how simple its basis'.
Einstein's book on relativity theory was to be published later that year as Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitaetstheorie (A full translation of that book can be found at The Foundation of the Generalised Theory of Relativity.
49 - Elementa geometriae by Euclid of Alexandria
Readers may well recognize some of the diagrams in this book from the textbooks of their youth, as the auction description quite rightly acknowledges it to be "the first edition of the oldest mathematical textbook still in common use today". It was originally written 2300 years ago by Euclid, translated from the Arabic text 900 years ago by Adelard of Bath, edited 800 years ago by Campanus of Novara, and first printed in Venice on May 25, 1482.
Almost all of history's great mathematicians have studied this text, as it was the standard higher learning textbook for 2300 years, and because of that longevity, it is claimed by some to have been even more influential than Newton's Principia.
First editions of this book are rare, with this copy the only one presented at auction in 2017, as was the case in 2016 when the only copy to reach auction fetched $148,842 (see #42 of The 50 most valuable scientific documents of 2016).
48 - Autograph signed letter to Michele Besso by Albert Einstein
$136,941 (£106,250) | Christies | July 12, 2017
Written on October 31, 1916, this letter acknowledges the first flush of acceptance of the general theory of relativity, as Einstein recounts spending some '"wunderschöne tage" ("wonderful days") in Holland, where "general relativity is already flourishing", and "in England too the theory has put down roots." After spending much of his life to this point as an anonymous individual, the acceptance of his theory of relativity meant he was suddenly able to gain time with some of the greatest minds of the period. The letter recounts, " I spent unforgettable hours with Ehrenfest and especially with Lorentz", referring to famous theoretical physicists, Paul Ehrenfest and Hendrik Lorentz.
Expected to fetch between £50,000 and £80,000, this signed autograph letter more than doubled its official estimate.
47 - Autograph signed letter to Michele Besso by Albert Einstein
$137,500 | Christies | July 13, 2017
Dated October 30, 1949, this letter contains reference to one of Einstein's most famous quotations. He writes of a recently published book about him (Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, ed. P.A. Schilpp, 1949) and reflects, "Darin habe ich den lieben Gott gegen die Zumutung beständigen Würfelns verteidigt" (In it I have defended the good Lord against the insinuation that he plays a continual game of dice).
Einstein's dice quote has been one of continual fascination to scientists ever since, with some of mankind's finest, such as Stephen Hawking, weighing in on the topic.
46 - Stirpes novae, aut minus cognitae, quas descriptionibus et iconibus Illustravit by Charles Louis L'Héritier de Brutelle
Charles Louis L'Héritier de Brutelle is one of the early great French botanists, and this particular lot is a very rare, complete, deluxe handcolored first edition of his first work.
One of the influences on this price is no doubt the involvement of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, whose first tentative steps into commercializing his vast talent as a a botanical illustrator were in this very production. Redouté later gave L'Héritier the credit for starting him on his illustrious career. Two of Redoute's famous works are listed later in this 2017 top-sellers list and his famous book, Les Lilliaces was once the second most valuable book to have ever sold at auction, fetching $5,500,000 at a Sotheby's (New York) auction in November, 1985.
45 - An Atlas of England and Wales by Christopher Saxton
This first edition copy of the earliest atlas of England and Wales, has all maps hand-colored and was probably printed around 1590. Its provenance is well known and once included Robert Theodore Gunther, the founder of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.
Christopher Saxton is regarded as "the father of English cartography" and this edition was the first atlas ever produced for an individual country, commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I.
A copy of this book is also one of the very few to have sold for more than US$1 million, with a copy having sold for $1,296,471 (£669,600) at a Sotheby's (London) auction in March, 2007, see #25 of The Most Valuable Scientific Documents of All-Time.
Very few copies of this book ever reach auction, and those that do generally fall in this price range, with the most recent sales prior to this being $195,200 at Arader Galleries in 2015 and $122,388 (£76,900) by Bonhams in 2013.
44 - The Marine Atlas or Seaman's Complete Pilot
by William Heather
$147,004 | Christies | December 13, 2017
The frontispiece for this publication (in the image gallery) says it all: "The marine atlas : or seaman's complete pilot for all the principal places in the known world, comprising a new and elegant collection of charts, accurately drawn and engraved from the most approved surveys and publications. Exhibiting on a large scale all the discoveries and improvements of the most celebrated navigators, both English and Foreign, ancient and modern, particularly those of Cook, MacKenzie, Wallis, Dixon, D'Apres, Clerke, Bougainville, Anson, Byron, Carteret, Forrest, Maurelle, King, Dalrymple, Dampier, Wilson, Vancouver, Furneaux, Portlock, Marchand, Phipps, Blight, Shortland, Perouse, etc with many additions and improvements. Now first made public under the patronage of several able and distinguished officers in the Navy and East-India Company's service, the whole forming a valuable and extensive selection, methodized, arranged and published for the use of the mariners of Great Britain by W Heather."
43 - Autograph postcard to Michele Besso by Albert Einstein
$150,000 | Christies | July 13, 2017
Dated December 21, 1915, this postcard from Einstein to Besso is just subsequent to his landmark presentation of four papers on the General Theory of Relativity to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in November 1915. The postcard reads in part (translated): "Read the articles! They provide final release from all the difficulties. The most delightful thing is the exact correspondence of the movement of the perihelion [of Mercury] and general covariance, but the most remarkable is the circumstance that Newton's field theory is already false for equations of the first order ... And now Planck is beginning to take the whole thing more seriously; though he is still resisting a bit."
42 – The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
With the full title of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, this book was first published in 1776 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and is regarded as the first great work in classical economics, and even today is still one of the most cited books in the social sciences published before 1950, behind only Karl Marx's Capital.
An unlikely best-seller in its time, first edition copies such as this reach auction most years and generally sell in the $100,000 to $200,000 range, with the dedication copy fetching $307,878 (£182,500) at a Christies auction in May, 2014.
There was some internal debate about whether economics is a science, and hence whether this book, the foundation of the study of economics, should be included on this list. We concluded that if economics isn't a science, by the time we've applied Big Data, it will become one.
41 - The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Edited by Charles Darwin
The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. encompasses the complete published series of zoological studies of specimens collected by Darwin on the second voyage of the Beagle (December 27, 1831 to October 2, 1836). The five books were edited by Charles Darwin with each authored by a different expert on the field contained therein: Fossil Mammalia by Richard Owen, Mammalia by George R. Waterhouse, Birds by John Gould, Fish by Leonard Jenyns, and Reptiles (1842 – 1843), by Thomas Bell.
Very few extant copies of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle are complete, as the five books were published unbound in 19 segments from 1838 through 1843, so this complete copy is very rare, though a second copy was presented at auction this year by Sothebys, fetching $137,947 (£106,250 ) on July 11. A complete bound three volume set of this work sold for $257,087 (£158,500) at a Sothebys auction on September 30, 2014.
DNQ – Aquatint Engraving of Pileated Woodpecker
by John James Audubon
40 – Original town plan for the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
$158,600 | Arader Galleries | September 24, 2017
The only surviving original manuscript of the first survey and town plan of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania understandably made news when it went to auction in September. Every subsequent land title in the area of central Pittsburgh to this day refers to this document. Three copies of the original map were recorded, but two are thought to have perished in the Great Fire of 1845. This copy too had been missing for 146 years and thought to have perished in the fire until it turned up in the most unlikely of circumstance in 1988. This map sold through local Pittsburgh auction house Freemans for $65,475 in 2005, and was offered for sale through AbeBooks and Arader Galleries at $275,000 earlier in 2017, before selling at auction through Arader for $158,600. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered both the 2005 and 2017 offering and has some interesting information, including the tantalizing rumor that another copy of the map may be about to surface.
39 – Pomona Britannica by George Brookshaw
The Pomona Britannica is one of the most highly regarded illustrated books ever produced and bears testimony to the extraordinary talent of George Brookshaw. Quite remarkably, Brookshaw achieved fame in his lifetime as a cabinet-maker to the very wealthy, and died a relatively unappreciated botanical artist. It was only after his death that Pomona Britannica became internationally recognized, and there is much intrigue as to why Brookshaw's successful furniture business was closed and he became a recluse for a decade prior to the publication of this book. The following examples of Brookshaw furniture at auction bear testimony to the exquisite quality of his craftsmanship as a cabinet maker: Bonhams, Bonhams, Bonhams, Sothebys, Sothebys, and Sothebys.
38 – Atlas de l'océan pacifique by Ivan Fedorovich Kruzenshtern
Baron Ivan Fyodorovich Kruzenshtern accidentally led the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe (1803 - 1806), while on a mission for the Russian-American Company to develop the fur trade with Russian America (Alaska), facilitate trade with China, Japan, and South America, and examine the coast of California for a possible colony. This trip formed the basis for what the auction description cites as a "landmark of cartography", but it was clearly supplemented by many subsequent Russian voyages in the North and South Pacific and data gathered from other sources.
The rarity of this volume is another perfect example of the fragility of paper-based information. The auctioned copy was a first edition, French issue, and extremely rare in that it contained both the South Pacific and the North Pacific sections – only three other copies of this atlas have ever gone to auction and none of them contained the North Pacific sections. The entire French edition of L'Atlas de l'Océan Pacifique can also be downloaded as a PDF at Google Books.
DNQ – Aquatint Engraving, Carolina Parrot
by John James Audubon
37 – Plantae Selectae by Christoph Jakob Trew and Benedict Christian Vogel
The auction description begins: A remarkable uncut copy of one of the greatest eighteenth-century botanical books. One needs to read further to fully understand how rare the complete Plantae Selectae really is. The first part was published in 1750, with the six subsequent parts appearing over the next 23 years to 1773, although Trew died in 1769. The text to the final three parts and the 20 plates for parts IX and X were finished by Benedict Christian Vogel, Professor of Botany at the University of Altdorf, and published in 1790-1792.
That the complete work of renowned beauty is incredibly well preserved and superbly colored is equally remarkable but this particular copy is even more celebrated because of its binding. In December 1787, a cargo of hides from the tanneries of St. Petersburg sank aboard the Baltic brigantine Fraumetta Catharina in Plymouth harbor. The wreck was discovered by an archaeological team in the 1970s and the cargo of leather was recovered and restored, part of which was used to bind this book in a period reproduction. A booklet documenting the restoration of the leather was included in the sale.
36 – Three bound scientific works by Albrecht Dürer
Three important works by the remarkably diverse German theorist Albrecht Dürer, being Underweysung der messung, mit dem zirckel unn richtscheyt in Linien ebnen unnd gantzen corporen (1525), Etliche underricht, zu befestigung der Stett, Schlosz, und Flecken (1527) and Hierinn sind begriffen vier bücher von menschlicher Proportion (1528).
From the auction description: An important Sammelband consisting of three books Dürer wrote toward the end of his life and which he also designed for the press. These include: a treatise on mensuration which introduced to Northern Europe techniques of perspective and mathematical proportion in drawing, painting, architecture and letter forms, which Dürer learned in Italy; a treatise on fortification; and a work on the proportion of the human body.
DNQ – Aquatint Engraving, Male Turkey
by John James Audubon
35 – Pair 18 1/2-inch Terrestrial and Celestial Globes by Vincenzo Coronelli
$197,834 (£149,000) | Bonhams | October 31, 2017
Vincenzo Coronelli was a Franciscan friar, cartographer, publisher, and encyclopedist known for globes, atlases and as the writer of more than 100 works of terrestrial and celestial cosmography in Latin, French and Italian. He is best known for producing a pair of terrestrial and celestial globes for the Duke of Parma which were 175 cm in diameter, and so impressed Cardinal César d'Estrées, the ambassador to Rome for French King Louis XIV, that he was asked to produce an even larger pair for the King. Coronelli moved to Paris for two years to complete the commission, eventually producing a pair of globes measuring 384 cm in diameter and weighing approximately 2 tons. The globes are now displayed in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.
The auctioned globes are just 18 1/2-inches in diameter, and were completed some 17 years after Coronelli's most famous globes, by which time his work was the toast of Europe and his globes were both incredibly expensive and highly sought after. Coronelli was a man of quite diverse expertise, studying hydraulics with a view to enabling the pumping of water for firefighting in towns, and in his later years he worked in the Austrian Empire designing a system of canals and locks to control flooding.
Despite all this, Coronelli's greatest work was probably Atlante Veneto, a comprehensive atlas published in thirteen folios and intended to be a continuation of Blaeu's Atlas Maior.
34 – The Vegetable System by John Hill
The Vegetable System is the largest botanical publication of the eighteenth century, taking 16 years of John Hill's life (1759 to 1775) to complete, and spanning 26 volumes and 1600 copper-plate engravings. Not surprisingly, it is very rare to find a complete set and although this copy is largely first edition and with an exceptional provenance, volume 23 is from a subsequent edition. Despite producing one of the finest and extensive botanical works in history, which resulted in him being Knighted with the Order of Vasa by the King of Sweden, Hill was a controversial figure, disparaged by many and he was never elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, an honor he coveted.
33 – Complete Geographical Map of all the Kingdoms of the World by Mateo Ricci
Italian Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci is one of history's most intriguing figures. Obviously a man of great intellect, Ricci used some extraordinary techniques to gain influence as a missionary. Ricci learned Chinese and began creating global maps showing China its place in the world in perspective in order to spread the influence of the Catholic Church. Known as Kunyu Wanquo Quantu (translated variously as A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World or Complete Geographical Map of all the Kingdoms of the World), these global maps helped him become one of the most influential people in China and he became the first European to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing in 1601. The map pictured above is the entire map, while the two segments of the map offered in this particular auction are believed to be remaining parts of one of just six known copies of the original eight maps he made between 1584 and 1609.
32 – Les Roses by Pierre Joseph Redouté and Claude Antoine Thory
Belgian painter and botanist Pierre Joseph Redouté was nicknamed "the Raphael of flowers" and has been called "the greatest botanical illustrator of all time." He was an official court artist of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, and at a later date, Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte became his patron and he became her official artist. Les Roses is one of Redouté 's best known works and most of the roses drawn within it were painted at Château de Malmaison and had been grown by Joséphine.
Les Roses was published in thirty parts from 1817 to 1825 and was available in four formats. This copy was created as the most desirable and expensive of those formats with the plates both in color and finished by hand, and in black on ochre paper.
31 – The Mammals of Australia by John Gould
John Gould is known the world over for his bird books, the best known being The Birds of Australia, and every year a handful of the many ornithological works he authored sell at auction for $100,000 or more.
One that stands out amongst Gould's work is The Mammals of Australia, a three volume work written and published by Gould between 1845 and 1863. In the introduction to the book, Gould says: It was not until I arrived in the country, and found myself surrounded by objects as strange as if I had been transported to another planet, that I conceived the idea of devoting a portion of my attention to the mammalian class of its extraordinary fauna.
Though the work was completed just 150 years ago, more than twenty of the species depicted in the three volumes have since become extinct, the best known of which is the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine).
Two copies of Gould's The Mammals of Australia sold in 2017, with both achieving a price that would have put them in the top 50 documents. To avoid repetition, we have removed duplications in the list. The second copy sold at Christies for $162,500 on June 15, 2017.
A complete copy of The Mammals of Australia can be found online at Archive.org
DNQ – Metropolis Movie Poster
$215,100 | Heritage Auctions | July 30, 2017
This movie poster (above left) almost deserves a position on our scientific documents listing because it represents the pioneer film of the science fiction genre, the epic 1927 silent movie Metropolis, the story of a dystopian future set in the year 2000. The scene in the center is from the film and if you go to the high resolution versions in the image gallery for this story, you'll see how the future (the year 2000) looked to the visionaries of 1927.
The movie poster for the original German release (above right) is the most valuable movie poster in history, with just four extant. It sold for $690,000 at a Reel Galleries auction in November, 2005. German artist Heinz Schulz-Neudamm created the poster, the novel and screenplay were written by Thea Von Harbou, and the film was directed by Thea's husband, Fritz Lang. You can watch the trailer for the remastered original movie here.
30 – De Europische Insecten and Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium by Maria Sibylla Merian
$215,900 | Arader Galleries | October 29, 2017
This lot contains two of the best known works of one of history's greatest female scientists, Maria Sibylla Merian, bound in one volume.
There are just two females represented on our 50 most valuable scientific documents list and both Émilie du Châtelet (see #26 on this list) and Maria Sibylla Merian (see #36 on this list) overcame countless seemingly insurmountable gender-bias obstacles of the era to make an immense contribution to science. Merian worked in watercolors, for example, because oil paints were unavailable to women. Indeed, Merian was not at first recognized for her work, having been "discovered" for her contributions to botany and zoology several centuries after her death and despite being the first published woman naturalist, she died a pauper. Peter the Great of Russia was the first to recognize Merian's work and he purchased many of her watercolors, which now reside in the Kunstkamera Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St Petersburg.
In 1699, Merian traveled to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America to observe and illustrate new species of insects, becoming arguably the first person in history to undertake an epic journey solely for scientific purposes. Her five-year expedition was cut short after two years when she contracted malaria, but the resultant publication of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium upon her return to Amsterdam became a foundation for the science of entomology. Merian is also considered by David Attenborough to be among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.
Two other Merian auction offerings in 2017 fetched considerable sums of money, being a single copy of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium which fetched $123,084 (G£93,750) at a Sothebys auction on November 14, 2017 and a third edition of her Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam et de toute l'Europe combined with Daniel Rabel's Theatrum floræ which fetched $87,500 at a Sothebys auction on October 26.
Like Madame la Marquise du Châtelet, Maria Sibylla Merian is an inspiration to all those whose destiny is challenged by circumstance.
29 – The earliest dated glass celestial globe by John Cowley
$217,165 (£162,500) | Christies | December 13, 2017
This glass celestial globe by John Cowley is the earliest glass celestial globe known, estimated to have been made between 1730 and 1740. The only known glass celestial globes to predate this one are both lost and the nearest extant, dated 1739, is in the Science Museum London. As the auction description states, "the current globe is a remarkable survival" as "the difficulty of making a glass globe, added to the fragility of the material used to represent the crystalline heavens explains their low preservation rates."
28 – Divina Proportione by Luca Pacioli
Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli was the man who taught mathematics to Leonardo da Vinci, a title that in itself makes him very special. Indeed, the pair appear to have had a meeting of the minds that saw them become incredibly close for a decade, collaborating on many projects and actually living together for many years. The best known portrait of Pacioli (above) has a young Leonardo looking on from the background.
Pacioli's book Summa di Aritmetica Geometria Proporzioni e Proporzionalita was the first work on general mathematics ever printed and contained the first detailed description of the double-entry accounting system, moving many people to acclaim Pacioli as the "Father of Accounting," though double-entry accounting was in use in Florence for 200 years and in Korea for 500 years before Pacioli documented it in a widely distributed book.
Nonetheless, Pacioli was an undoubted polymath, and when the first three copies of Divina Proportione were created using amanuensis, Da Vinci and Pacioli were sharing a home in Milan and Da Vinci illustrated all three copies. When this first edition was printed in 1509, the illustrations were derived from Da Vinci's artwork, some more closely than others.
The record price for a first edition of Divina Proportione was achieved last year when Christies sold an exquisitely preserved copy for £194,500 (US$256,940 – see entry #24), though this latest first edition fetched just £175,000 (US$233,870), indicating that perhaps not enough people appreciate that the man who created the two most valuable paintings in history (see the bottom of this article) also created much of the artwork for this book.
DNQ – Autograph quote on 'Willpower '(1922) by Albert Einstein
$240,000 | Winner's Auctions | October 24, 2017
Perhaps not a scientific document, but some sound advice from the best known scientist of all-time. The humble Einstein was en route to a lecture tour of Japan when it was announced that he had belatedly won the 1921 Nobel Prize. Rather than cancel his tour to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony, Einstein decided to fulfil his obligations and forgo the prize ceremony.
While staying at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a messenger came to his room and Einstein did not have a tip available. According to the auction description, Einstein decided to make the most of his new exalted status and give the messenger two of his writings. When he gave him the articles he told the messenger to keep them, as their future value may be much higher than a standard tip.
The above is one of the two articles which Professor Einstein gave to a messenger in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in lieu of a tip, saying that it is possible that the day will come that they will be worth more than a standard tip. He was right, and one of the two "tips" that day, which translates to the well known maxim "Where there's a will there's a way", sold for $240,000 at Winner's auction house in Jerusalem. Keep working your way down this list and you'll encounter the other "tip".
27 – Gilt Brass Celestial Globe (c. 1560-1580)
$238,438 (£185,000) | Christies | July 12, 2017
This rare gilt brass 3½-inch terrestrial globe was probably made in Southern Germany, circa 1560 – 1580 as the cartography is based on the world gores of Franciscus Demongenet which were drawn circa 1560.
26 – Les Lilliaces by Pierre-Joseph Redouté
$244,000 | Arader Galleries | October 25, 2017 |
Pierre-Joseph Redouté needs no introduction to New Atlas readers as his works have been regularly appearing in our auction reports for many years. As previously mentioned in this list (see #32) Redouté has been called "the Raphael of flowers" and "the greatest botanical illustrator of all time" and in 1985, a copy of his magnum opus Les Liliacées sold for $5.5 million to become one of the most valuable scientific documents of all time (see #5 on our list of the most valuable scientific documents of all-time).
Les Liliacées was produced under the patronage of Empress Josephine of France (the wife of Napoleon I – pictured above center) though prior to the French Revolution, he had been an official court artist of Queen Marie Antoinette of "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" fame. Provenance is always one of the key factors in determining the price of an object at auction, and with three of history's most recognizable figures associated with this magnificent work, it's not surprising that Empress Josephine's personal copy would become one of the most valuable ever. Comprising 468 watercolors of flowers from the gardens of Malmaison, St.-Cloud, Versailles and Sevres, the 16 volume set weighs 320 pounds. The New York Public Library's Digital Collection offers a complete digital reproduction of this book, as does the Biodiversity Library.
25 – Harmonia Macrocosmica seu Atlas Universalis et Novus by Andreas Cellarius
A celestial atlas published in the Netherlands in 1661 and as touted in the auction description "another outstanding example of atlas production from the Golden Age of Dutch cartography." Unlike the later celestial atlases, the Cellarius charts demonstrated various ancient and contemporary cosmological ideas, rather than just the names and positions of the stars. The purpose of the book was to assess different attempts to discover the underlying harmony of the universe. The charts represent the highest levels of seventeenth-century astronomical thought, with the diagrams showing aspects of the three great theories on the nature of the universe: the Ptolemaic, the Copernican and the Brahean. Online copy
24 – Opus Ruralium Commodorum by Pietro de' Crescenzi
A beautiful, crisp First Edition copy of the first printed book on agriculture. The unhurried pace at which such a worthwhile text found its readership might surprise readers who have grown up with the internet. The book was completed by retired lawyer Pietro de' Crescenzi, based largely on classical and medieval sources, some time around between 1304 and 1309. The structure and content is substantially based on the De re rustica of Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, written in the first century AD. King Charles V of France ordered a French translation in 1373. In 1471, it was published in Augsburg by Johann Schüssler, and was another early best seller, with 57 editions in Latin, Italian, French, Polish and German appearing during the following century.
23 – Totius Orbis Descriptio (c. 1570)
$246,168 (£187,500) | Sothebys | November 14, 2017
Quite an astonishing amount of money for a single map, but it is one of just three copies of this First State map (one is in the British Library and the other in the John Carter Brown Library) and this was the first known appearance of any First State copy at auction. An example of the second state was sold at Sotheby's in 2000 for $153,118 (£104,450)
22 – Itinerario Voyage ofte Schipvaert naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien by Jan Huygen van Linschoten
This book would have seemed like a treasure map to many when it was first published, as it contained all the information needed for the French, British and Dutch to break the Portuguese monopoly on trade in the East and West Indies. Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563 – 1611) was a Dutch trader who travelled extensively throughout these regions, and who was appointed as secretary to the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa between 1583 and 1588.
Using the open access to the charts, archives, trading details and other closely held intellectual property of the Portugeuse Government which his position afforded him during this period, he copied it all and when he left the post, he wrote and published this book in 1596. The information contained within the published charts included the currents and depths, and other crucial navigational information which was used by the Dutch East India Company and British East India Company to break the 16th-century monopoly enjoyed by the Portuguese on trade with the East Indies.
21 – Nova Francia: Or the Description of that Part of New France, which is one continent with Virginia by Marc Lescarbot
A First Edition in English of this cornerstone work on the French settlements in Canada, including the above map which pre-dates Champlain's famous map of the area which now resides in the Library of Congress. Marc Lescarbot was a Protestant lawyer who spent more than a year in America as part of the expedition that founded Port Royal in Nova Scotia, arriving in 1606 and this book was published to encourage settlement in the New World.
The map extends up the St. Lawrence River as far as the Indian village Hochelaga, or Montreal as we now know it. Kebec is shown for the first time on a printed map in its Micmac form, meaning the "narrows of the river."
20 – A 1753 map of the Inhabited Part of Virginia, containing the whole of the Province of Maryland with Part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson
This map is one of only four known examples of the first edition, first state, of the most important 18th century map of Virginia. This particular copy is even more notable as it was the personal copy of Jacques Nicolas Bellin, chief mapmaker to the French government during a period that included the French and Indian war and the American Revolution.
19 – Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius
The work of Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is considered to be the first true atlas, in that it consisted of a collection of uniform map sheets for which copper printing plates were specifically engraved, rather than a collection of maps from various sources. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum contained 53 bundled maps of other map makers, all attributed, but all maps were redrawn to the same style and staandardised to the same size, then arranged in order by continent, region and state. This was hence the first time that the entirety of Western European knowledge of the world was brought together in one book.
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was first published on In May 20, 1570, three Latin editions, one Dutch, one French and one German edition were published before the end of 1572 and a total of 25 editions were published before Ortelius' death in 1598.
Four other copies of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum reached auction in 2017, selling for $219,600 at Arader Galleries on October 29, $210,595 (EUR €198,400) at Galerie Bassenge on April 11, $155,454 (EUR €132,500) at Marc van de Wiele Auctions on October 7, and $80,656 (EUR €58,000) at Henri Godts Books and Prints Auctions on June 20.
18 – Archive of designs for the Thames Tunnel by Marc Brunel
$263,251 (£200,000) | Bonhams | November 15, 2017
The Thames Tunnel is an unsung historic landmark of London. Though it was one of the great achievements of the heroic age of engineering, thousands of people pass through it daily without being aware of its significance. Tunnels were not a new thing in Victorian Britain – they'd been dug for thousands of years all over the world – but what made the Thames Tunnel different was that it was the first passenger tunnel ever to be constructed under a navigable waterway, and it was built to handle the traffic of what was then the largest city on the planet.
It was built between 1825 and 1843 by Anglo-French engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who went on to become one of the greatest engineers of all time. This fascinating memento of the Industrial Revolution sold in London on November 15. Full story
17 – Atlas Maior, sive cosmographie Blaviana by Joan Blaeu
To state that Blaeu's Atlas Maior is the most famous atlas in the history of printed maps does not quite do it justice. The importance of this 11 volume first edition cartographic masterpiece cannot be overstated. In its time, it was a status symbol of the highest order, being the largest, most sumptuous, best informed and most expensive book in the world.
It covered the known world (including America and China) in 594 maps and 3,368 pages of texts, when it was first published in Amsterdam in 1662 and just 300 copies were produced, with later versions produced in Latin, French, Dutch, German and Spanish over the following decade. Many of these volumes were presented to the most powerful people across Europe as a tangible symbol of the Republic of the United Netherlands, its knowledge and its vast resources. It was no secret that Blaeu drew heavily from privileged access to charts of the Dutch East India Company, the first multinational company and one of the most powerful entities in the world, countries included.
"The contents of this unprecedented atlas illustrate the high standards of contemporary cartography and geographical knowledge, and its presentation bears witness to the superb craftsmanship of engraver, printer, binder and papermaker... The costly atlas was in fact exclusively designed for those members of the patriciate who could command both the material and intellectual resources that were needed to buy it and appreciate it" (Koeman II, pp.1-3).Despite its stature and beauty, a complete set of the atlas has never sold for more than a million dollars, with the record price of $883,944 (£581,000) set by Sotheby's (London) in November, 2015.
16 – Apollo 13 Flight Plan
$275,000 | Sotheby's | July 20, 2017
As New Atlas' David Szondy wrote in his preview for the auction of this document, "Apollo 11 was one of the great milestones in human exploration, and Apollo 13 was one of the most dramatic episodes. The flight plan used aboard the Apollo 13 Command Module wasn't just along for the ride, it played a central role in this drama ... The loose-leaf binder not only includes instructions for the crew, but hastily scribbled notes used as the astronauts struggled to survive the return journey to Earth after their spacecraft was damaged." Full story
DNQ – Aquatint Engraving, Great Blue Heron
by John James Audubon
15 – The Natural History of Carolina,. Florida and the Bahama Islands by Mark Catesby
This is a first edition of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America. Published by English naturalist Mark Catesby between 1729 and 1747, the two volume set included 220 plates of birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, mammals, and plants, making Catesby the first natural historian to combine ornithological details with botanical ones.
The first edition was published in parts and completed in 1747. It is the earliest color plate book on American birds and was exceptionally well received. In a contemporary review in Philosophical Transactions, Cromwell Mortimer, secretary of the Royal Society, called it "the most magnificent work I know since the Art of printing has been discovered."
14 – Archipelagi Orientalis Sive Asiaticus by Joan Blaeu
Joan Blaeu's Archipelagi Orientalis Sive Asiaticus (1659) is the earliest known map of Australia and New Zealand, and was referred to as "Australia's birth certificate" by the National Library of Australia during its recent Mapping Our World exhibition.
The map was the first to name Australia as Nova Hollandia (New Holland) and the first to name Novo Zeelandia (New Zealand). Though only four copies of Joan Blaeu's map are known to exist, the map that sold at Sotheby's on May 9, 2017 was created even earlier than the copy held by Australia's National Library (1663), having been created in 1659. Full story
13 – The Birds of Australia by John Gould
John Gould's best known work amongst dozens of highly regarded major publications is his Birds of Australia and for good reason: with 828 extant endemic species, Australia is home to approximately one in 12 of the world's unique bird species, and most of the world's birds can trace their lineage to the continent. Given that Gould's seven volume Birds of Australia describes 681 species, 328 of which were new to science at the time of publication (1840 – 1848), he must have worked diligently in the two years he spent collecting specimens.
Just 250 sets of the seven-volume work were printed, and they rarely reach auction, with this copy fetching $349,120 and another copy sold by Christies on June 15, 2017 for $295,000. Given that two copies of Gould's Mammals of Australia also sold for spectacular prices in 2017, four of the top 50 scientific documents would have been produced by Gould if we hadn't removed duplicates from the list.
12 - 1976 Apple I computer
$355,000 | Christies | June 15, 2017
The general malaise in the collectibles industry was evident in this sale when one of only six known working Apple I computers sold for just US$355,000. Whilst this may seem a lot for a 40-year-old computer, it is the cheapest working Apple I computer to have sold in recent times, with working models having previously fetched $626,967 (€492,000), $664,261 (€513,660) and $905,000. Full story
11 – Autograph letter to Michele Besso a by Albert Einstein
$377,635 (£293,000) | Christies | July 12, 2017
In this letter, dated December 1916, Einstein discusses the cosmological constant, a concept equal to the energy density of the vacuum of space. The concept of a static universe was the accepted view at the time and Einstein later abandoned the concept after Hubble's 1929 discovery that the universe is expanding.
10 – De humani corporis fabrica libri septem by Andreas Vesalius
Copies of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (On the Fabric of the Human Body) are rare and valuable for good reason. When it was published in 1543 this book advanced anatomy dramatically, superseding Galen's work of 1500 years prior as the primary reference for physicians.
The dedication copy of this book is the most valuable copy to have changed hands to date, fetching $1,652,500 at a Christie's (New York) auction in March, 1998 and that book is one of the very few scientific documents, manuscripts or instruments to have ever fetched more than $1,000,000 (see #21 on our top 100 most valuable scientific documents of all-time).
Only two copies came to auction this year of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem came to auction this year with this copy being the most valuable at $417,315, and another copy sold by Christies fetching $343,500 on June 15, 2017.
9 – De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes by Leonhart Fuchs
A finely-coloured first edition in Latin of "perhaps the most celebrated and most beautiful herbal ever published" (PMM), De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes was first published in Basel in 1542, covering 497 plants and with over 500 woodcut illustrations. Over 100 of the plants in the book were first descriptions, and Leonhart Fuchs is righfully regarded as one of the German fathers of the science of Botany. Fuchs name lives on through the plant and the color named after him. Stanford University Press called this book, "one of the best illustrated books of all time and a masterpiece of the German Renaissance". In addition to the Latin first edition above, a German edition of this book, entitled New Kreüterbuch, sold for $142,139 (1,250,000 SEK) at Stockholms Auktionsverk on June 20, 2017.
A hand-colored first edition in German of Leonhart Fuchs' beautifully illustrated herbal (a book outlining the medicinal and culinary uses of plants) published in 1542 and considered by Stanford University Press as one of the best illustrated books of all time and a masterpiece of the German Renaissance. PPM describes this book as "perhaps the most celebrated and most beautiful herbal ever published."
8 – Voyage dans l'intérieur de l'Amérique du Nord, exécuté pendant les années 1832, 1833 et 1834 by Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied
The translation of this title is Prince Maximilian's Travels in the Interior of North America and from the auction description: Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied's famed narrative of his trip to the United States and up the Missouri River in 1833-34, with its magnificent atlas of views and scenes of Indian life by Karl Bodmer, is justly celebrated as the greatest illustrated American travel narrative and the most important depiction of American Indians in the frontier era.
This map details the extent of the pair's travels and this excerpt from Karl Bodmer's America, by William H. Goetzmann, captures the importance of the work: The Swiss painter Karl Bodmer was commissioned by Prince Maximilian to record his 1832-34 journey up the Missouri River where the expedition encountered the major Plains Tribes: Cree, Assinboine, Mandan, Mintari, Crow, and Blackfeet. The images of the Blackfeet and Mandan people are particularly important as these tribes were greatly diminished by an 1837 smallpox epidemic thus Bodmer's visual work, together with Prince Maximilian's detailed studies of these tribes, form the primary accounts of what became virtually lost cultures.
A second auction relating to Prince Maximilian's Voyage dans l'intérieur de l'Amérique du Nord occurred in 2017 when Doyle sold a group of 80 plates produced by Swiss-French illustrator Karl Bodmer for the volume. Bodmer's illustrations fetched $175,000 at the Doyle auction on November 7, 2017.
7 – Sidereus Nuncius by Galilee Galileo
Sidereus Nuncius is one of the landmark scientific publications in history. Written by Italian polymath Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642), the book introduced the world to his astronomical discoveries made using his home-made telescope, and is hence the foundation work of modern astronomy. Even the word "telescope" was not even coined until the year after this book was published – Galileo refers to the device in this book as a "perspicillum."
Galileo did not invent the telescope, but when he heard about the device being built in Holland in 1609, he set about making his own. Within a few months, he had improved upon his first X9 magnification to a X32 magnification, pointed it towards the heavens and then published his observations in this book in 1610. Those observations included the first details of Jupiter's four moons and his revelations about galaxies such as the Milky Way consisting of numerous stars. The drawings he made of the craters of the moon were published in this book for the first time and, building upon the previously published work of Nicolaus Copernicus, helped to change our understanding of the universe from a geocentric (everything revolves around the Earth) model to a heliocentric (centered on the Sun) model.
The conflict Galileo's discoveries created with the Catholic Church finally resulted in Galileo being sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Remarkably, four centuries and 120 lunar spacecraft missions later, the Church has yet to fully come to terms with the injustices committed against Galileo.
The copy auctioned by Christies last year sold for £314,500 ($415,464), with the record price for the book being $662,500 which was achieved at a Christie's (New York) auction in December, 2010. The copy sold for EUR €400,000) by Minerva Auctions on June 15 is just the second copy to reach auction since that record sale.
DNQ – Topps Mickey Mantle Baseball Card and Topps Lew Alcindor Basketball Card
$462,000 | Memory Lane | May 6, 2017
The humble cigarette card of last century is one of the few mediums to have made the transition into cyberspace with enhanced value, and the electronic marketplace enabled by the internet has seen the value of all types of sports card rise to unprecedented levels.
The Holy Grail of sports cards is the T206 Honus Wagner, with the last such card to reach auction in September 2016 fetching $3,120,000 at Goldin Auctions. None of the 57 extant Honus Wagner cards came to auction this year, so the biggest sale of the baseball card year dropped somewhat in value to $462,000 for a 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle Rookie card.
Basketball cards aren't as popular as baseball cards, with the biggest sale of the year restricted to $240,000 for a 1969 Topps Lew Alcindor card at Heritage Auctions.
DNQ – Dracula (1931) & Casablanca (1942) Movie Posters
Dracula $525,800 | Heritage Auctions | November 19, 2017
Casablanca $428,000 | Heritage Auctions | July 29, 2017
Movie Posters as you might gather from these prices, are now big business, with the second (Dracula) and third (Casablanca) highest prices ever fetched by a movie poster occurring during 2017. When the Casablanca poster above sold for $428,000 in July, we ran a feature article on the history of movie poster prices.
DNQ - 1912 Henderson 1000cc Four
$539,000 | Mecum | January 28, 2017
One of the ten most valuable motorcycles ever to sell at auction, this completely original, unrestored 115-year-old Henderson Four was the most valuable two-wheeler to sell during 2017. The 57 cubic inch (934 cc) F-head four-cylinder Henderson sold with both the original paint and the original tires. Full Story
6 - Olympia Büromaschinenwerke M4 Enigma Cipher Machine
$547,500 | Christies | June 15, 2017
The most expensive scientific instrument sold at auction each year is invariably a four-rotor (M4) Enigma machine, the most sought-after of the famous German WW2 cipher machines.
Each year for the last few years we have seen successive M4 machines at auction setting new world record prices, as there are only around 100 known machines extant from the original 1600 produced, and the magic of encryption has become front-of-mind as Cryptography (aka cryptology) is now a critically important science thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, plus the impact of the blockbuster movie, The Imitation Game, which highlighted the mathematical legacy of Alan Turing, Arthur Scherbius, Marian Rejewski, the importance of Bletchley Park and the ingenuity of the Enigma machine.
The most expensive scientific instrument sold at auction this year and the latest world record price for an Enigma was set by this machine, eclipsing the $463,500 fetched in December 2016. Another M4 sold for $435,000 at a Sotheby's auction on December 12, 2017, giving the Enigma first and second place.
DNQ – Autograph Manuscript of the revised first violin part for Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir Cantata No. 130 by Johann Sebastian Bach
$603,257 (£464,750) | Sothebys | May 23, 2017
Significant musical manuscripts are closely held and rarely come to market, but autograph manuscripts of obscure compositions by famous composers still achieve greater prices than important scientific manuscripts. 2017 was a strong year for musical scores with this Bach autograph manuscript fetching $603,257. Other significant autograph manuscripts to sell in 2017 included: Gustav Mahler's Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the World) which fetched $868,054 (£668,750) on May 23 at a Sothebys auction; a signed autograph manuscript by Franz Schubert of a Piano Sonata in A flat major fetched $475,000 at Christies(New York) on June 15, 2017; the autograph working manuscript of the Second Rhapsody for Violin and Piano BB96 by Béla Bartók fetched $408,921 (£309,000) at a Sothebys (London) auction on November 28, 2017; a signed and dated autograph manuscript of the opening of the celebrated Rondo in A for Piano and Orchestra, K. 386,by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fetched $385,189 (£296,750) at a Sothebys (London) auction on May 23, 2017; an autograph music manuscript entitled Divertimento in F by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sold for $369,576 (€290,00 plus commission) at JA Stargardt on March 15, 2017; many other autograph musical manuscripts sold for more than $125,000.
5 – Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri by Albertus Seba
Albertus Seba is often linked with having worked for the all-powerful Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company). Our investigations can link him only tangentially to the most powerful trading entity in history, in that he was a prominent and well-respected apothecary located close to the port of Amsterdam at a time when it was the home base for the international trading company. His interest in obtaining rare and unusual specimens with which to experiment and make drugs became well known to the crews of the ships returning to port, and sailors would bring him specimens to supplement their income.
By exploiting this unusual circumstance, Seba twice assembled enormous collections of natural history specimens, the first becoming so famous that it was purchased by Peter The Great of Russia in 1717 and became one of the foundation collections of the famous Kunstkamera in St Petersburg, Russia's first museum.
The second collection, accumulated from 1717 onwards, formed the basis of the specimens covered in this work of art and science, by far the most sumptuous and complete record of natural history. Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri encompasses four large folio (504 x 340 mm) volumes published over a 35 year period, and completed decades after Seba's death. The story of the binding alone on this body of work is a tale worth reading.
Copies of this book are rare and incredibly valuable, with this latest sale a record, exceeding previously recorded sales of $442,500 by Christies (New York) in 2000, and $525,000 by Sothebys (New York) in 2001.
DNQ – Fritz the Cat Cover Original Art by Robert Crumb
$717,000 | Heritage Auctions | May 20, 2017
NewAtlas has previously reported on the astonishing rise in value of comics and comic art in the last few years, with numerous sales of original TinTin comic art fetching over US$1 million each. Heritage Auctions' Comics & Comic Art Auction in New York on May 20, 2017 continued that trend when original cover art by Robert Crumb for his underground comic classic Fritz the Cat sold for $717,000, surpassing Batman, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Superman et al., to become the most valuable piece of American comic art yet sold. That's it above left.
For those readers too young to have witnessed the underground comics of the sixties, Crumb's best known work was the cover of the Big Brother and the Holding Company album, Cheap Thrills, famously commissioned by the band's lead singer Janis Joplin. The album regularly appears on all-time-great lists of album covers, and was voted by Rolling Stone as #9 on the Greatest Album Covers of All Time. Crumb famously refused to accept payment for the cover, saying, "I don't want Columbia's filthy lucre." Full story.
4 – De Insulis nuper in mari Indico repertis by Christopher Columbus
The Columbus Letter, or in its full title, De Insulis nuper in mari Indico repertis is a book by Christopher Columbus, being details of his westward voyage across the Atlantic and the discovery of America.
It was published in the very infancy of book publishing, just 50 years after German Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press into Europe and became one of the first "best sellers" in history, though very few original copies remain.
So successful was the publication that 11 editions were published in 1493, and six more editions were published over the years 1494 to 1497. Sadly, only 80 copies from all 17 editions have survived the 525 years, according to the Osher Map Library, and only four copies of this (the auctioned copy) Basel edition, plus three copies of the Italian edition, have been offered at auction in the last 80 years.
The auctioned copy is a 1494 Basel edition and all the more significant through the additional use of woodcut illustrations created by a Swiss artist. The same five woodcut blocks used to illustrate the first Basel edition of 1493, (the only known complete copy extant is at the New York Public Library), were used in this edition.
3 – The Ripley Scroll by Sir George Ripley
$781,460 (£584,750) | Christies | December 13, 2017
Not all that long ago, alchemy was a legitimate science, and many of science's best known early names studied the subject prior to it branching off to become chemistry: Roger Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Aquinas and Sir Thomas Browne, among many.
There's still a tendency for us to dismiss the subject as nonsense, even though it was an embryonic attempt to define scientific method and to understand the make up of our world by people who intuitively knew they were on the right track. Substances may not have been made of earth, wind, fire and water, but the knowledge that substances were made up of the same fundamental elements, could be transformed and were soluble, was a step in the right direction. Robert Boyle became the father of modern chemistry through seeking the truth and his exploration of alchemy did not detract from his ultimate achievements.
Two of the best known and most authoritative early works on the protoscience of alchemy are attributed to Sir George Ripley (circa 1415-1490), one being The Compound of Alchemy and the other, the Ripley Scroll, a 3.7-meter-long (12-ft) illustrated manuscript of which there are 23 known copies. Twenty-two of those copies are in museums and libraries, with just one copy in private hands, and that copy went to auction in London at Christies Valuable Books and Manuscripts Sale on December 13, 2017.
A mix of English and Latin verse and images, the scroll supposedly details the process of how to manufacture the Philosophers' Stone, (the means of converting base metals into noble metals, (not necessarily gold, though that became the default goal as success brought infinite wealth), though a close look at the illustrations (the above image depicts increasing magnification of just one frame) shows them to be equally as cryptic as the verse.
This particular copy of the Ripley Scroll was produced on vellum around 1624, and went to auction with an official expectation between £200,000 and £300,000. As the only copy in private hands, it understandably exceeded its estimate with a final price of $781,460 (£584,750).
The auction site has a great article explaining Alchemy and the importance of the Ripley Scroll by Kay Sutton, Christie's director of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. And if you'd like to view a genuine Ripley Scroll, the British Library's copy is on display until February 28, 2018 as part of an exhibition entitled Harry Potter: A History of Magic.
2 – Discorsi e Dimostrazioni matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze by Galilee Galileo
A significant work in the history of science, this dedication copy of Galileo Galilei's last great work, Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche, intorno due nuove scienze attenenti alla mecanica & i movimenti locali (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences) was sold in Paris for €727,919 (US$791,190), making it one of the 50 Most Valuable Scientific Documents of all-time.
Regarded by many as the world's first Physics textbook, the book was written in a style similar to Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo(Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), in which three men (Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviati) discuss the subject, with Simplicio representing Galileo's early beliefs, Sagredo representing his middle period beliefs, and Salviati his ideas at the time of writing.
Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche was published in 1638, but the Roman Inquisition had banned the publication of Galileo's works in 1632 due to his work Dialogo, which proposed the heliocentric theory. Galileo, who was effectively under house arrest, consequently gave a handwritten copy of the work to the Ambassador of France to the Holy See. Read on for the full story, which explains why the dedication copy is so very special.
DNQ – Tintin en Amérique artwork by Hergé
$797,471 (EUR €753,000) | Artcurial | April 8, 2017
For many years it was the superhero genre of Superman, Batman at al that led the relentless price escalation for narrative art (comics), but over the last few years it has been the art of Hergé (Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi) and his unlikely hero, traveller, adventurer and journalist TinTin, that have outstripped all others.
Indeed, 2017 was the first year since 2013 that an individual piece of Hergé TinTin artwork has not fetched more than a US$1,000,000, with two sales above a million in 2014 and another two in 2016, topped by an astonishing world record price achieved by Paris-based Artcurial in May, 2014, when a 1937, 35 x 53 cm piece of original Herge TinTin comic art sold for €2,654,400 (US$3,618,566).
The results for TinTin over the last five years are the most convincing indication yet that comic art is entering the mainstream contemporary art world.
Hergé and TinTin again topped the narrative art prices globally in 2017 with the above original art from the 1932 TinTin comic,Tintin en Amérique, but did not crack the million dollar mark for the fourth year in a row.
DNQ – Faiz et Conquestes d'Alexandre (A History of Alexander the Great) by Quinte-Curce
$988,391 (EUR €832,000) | Aguttes | December 20, 2017
This book is a French translation of an ancient text. The translation was written in France circa 1480 by Vasque de Lucène, and based on a copy of Historiarum Alexandri Magni Libri which was written in first Century Rome by historian Quinte-Curce (Quintus Curtius Rufus) about the life of Alexander the Great, which in turn was largely based on the panegyric eulogy of Alexander by Clitarque of Alexandria. Read the fine print and you'll find that de Lucène had an incomplete set of texts – of the ten books that make up Historiarum Alexandri Magni Libri, books I and II, plus parts of books V, VI and X were missing. The lot went to auction with an estimate of €300,000 to €500,000 ($353,800 to $589,670).
1 – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin
In 2016, three scientific documents fetched more than a million, but in 2017, this was the only one to achieve that feat ... and it is a very special document with wonderful provenance.
Few scientific treatises in history had such a profound public impact as Charles Darwin's publication on November 24, 1859 of his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Immediately challenged by religion, Darwin's theory of evolution was championed so successfully by Thomas Henry Huxley that he was dubbed "Darwin's bulldog" by the media. Huxley, who gave us the terms "agnostic" and "agnosticism", ensured that the debate was characterized as "religion versus science" and he used Darwinism to campaign against the authority of the clergy in education.
One of the many spectacular lots that went to auction in the last week of the auction year was the long-lost copy of Darwin's sheets of the third edition of his landmark book, complete with his autograph revisions. The one-time existence of these sheets has long been known, but their whereabouts and even survival remained a mystery until they recently surfaced.
No other example of Darwin's autograph revisions to the text of this important work have ever been offered publicly, so it is no surprise that they sold for more than US$1 million.
Check out our listing of the The most valuable scientific documents of all-time and you will see how very few scientific manuscripts have ever broached the million-dollar mark.
The final sale price of Darwin's autograph correction was £788,750 (US$1,054,100).
Several other copies of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection attracted high prices during 2017, most notably a copy sold by Christies for $346,702 (£269,000) on July 12, and a copy sold by Sothebys for $213,408 (£162,500) on July 30.
DNQ – Regarding a fitting way of life by Albert Einstein
$1,560,000 | Winners Auctions | October 24, 2017
The second of the writings given to that messenger in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in November, 1922. At $1.56 million, Einstein was correct in his assessment that the tip might well be worth something. His advice: Stilles bescheidenes Leben gibt mehr Glueck als erfolgreiches Streben, verbunden mit bestaendiger Unruhe (A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness).
DNQ – Declaration of Independence
$1,800,000 | Blanchard's Auction Services | November 11, 2017
One of just five surviving copies of John Holt's 1776 broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence, and the only one still in private hands, this original copy remained in the family of its original recipient, Colonel David Mulford, for the 241 years prior to this sale.
Several copies of the Declaration of Independence have previously gone to auction, some with quite astonishing stories attached to them. One copy was found tucked in the back of an old painting that had just been purchased for $4 at a flea market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania in 1989. Sothebys sold the document for $2.42 million on June 4, 1991. In June 2000, the same document went to auction again, fetching $8.14 million.
In another story, an undisguised copy of the Declaration of Independence was purchased by Michael Sparks at the Music City Thrift Shop in Nashville, Tennessee for $2.48 in March, 2006. Upon taking the document home, Sparks got online and found he'd purchased one of the 200 original copies of the historic document, selling it 12 months later at Raynors' Historical Collectible Auctions for $477,650.
DNQ - Robby the Robot
$5,375,000 | Bonhams | November 21, 2017
Before a certain cybernetic comedy pair stole the show in 1977's Star Wars, the single most iconic robot in Hollywood history was Robby the Robot. Designed for MGM by Robert Kinoshita, Arnold Gillespie, Irving Block, Mentor Huebner and Arthur Lonergan, and constructed in the studio workshops, Robby has had a surprisingly long history in films and is even unique in having an actor's page on IMDB.
David Szondy forecast that big things were afoot with his sale preview, and the full story and context is finished with our reporting of Robby's sale, which made Robby the second most valuable movie prop in history.
The only purpose-built movie prop to have ever sold for more is Marilyn Monroe's "subway dress" from The Seven Year Itch (1955) which was sold by Profiles in History for $5,520,000 (inc. buyers premium) in 2011.
DNQ - Rolex Ref. 6239 wristwatch
$17,752,500 | Phillips | October 26, 2017
When actress Joanne Woodward purchased her husband a watch in 1968, she could not possibly have forseen that the watch would become the most valuable watch ever sold, but that's what happened. The watch was a Rolex Reference 6329 and the husband was Paul Newman, who wore the watch continuously, in and out of his racing cars, and in particular, in the 1969 motorsport classic Winning.
It became the most iconic example of the best known wristwatch in history, and the design took his name. Newman played his role to perfection too. While undergoing intensive preparation for the film, he found he was not just enjoying himself immensely, but he was pretty good at driving a racing car, despite his late start in the sport at 46 years of age.
The celluloid superstar subsequently achieved more success on the racetrack than he could have dreamed, winning four SCCA American Championships, and finishing second in the 1979 24 Hour of Le Mans. He also won the race his watch was named after at not-so-tender age of 70 years. Some stories are just meant to have a happy ending.
DNQ - 1956 Aston Martin DBR1 Number 1
$22,550,000 | RM-Sothebys | August 19, 2017
The most expensive automobile sold during 2017 was this Aston Martin DBR1. The RM Sotheby's press release called it "the most important Aston Martin ever produced." Only five were made, and between them they won the 24 Hour of Le Mans and the World Sportscar Championship in 1959. The DBR1 also won the 1000 km Nürburgring race in 1957, 1958 and 1959, forever validating it had found the ideal balance of performance and handling to conquer endurance racing on the most demanding racetrack in the world. This car won the third of those victories and helped dethrone Ferrari for the world title in 1959.
It is now the most expensive Aston Martin, the most expensive British car and the seventh most expensive automobile ever to sell at auction. Full story.
DNQ – The Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith
$35 million | Private Sale | September 20, 2017
Religious texts dominate the list of the most valuable manuscripts ever sold at auction, and hence it was only logical that the record price for any book or manuscript, the $30.8 million paid by Bill Gates for the "The Codex Leicester" by Leonardo da Vinci, would eventually be surpassed by a religious text.
On September 20, 2017, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) announced that it had acquired the original handwritten printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon, as dictated by Joseph Smith. The price was reported as $35 million, which would make it the most valuable document in history.
DNQ - The Earrings of the Gods
$56.3 million | Sothebys | May 16, 2017
The world's most expensive earrings sold in Geneva on May 16, 2017 when the "Apollo and Artemis Diamonds" were snapped up by the same buyer for a total of $56,290,627.
The Apollo earring is blue and much rarer than its pink Artemis partner, and hence the more expensive of the pair, which were sold as separate lots for $41,255,566 and $15,035,061, respectively. Full Story
DNQ - The Pink Star
$71.2 million (HK$553 million) | Sothebys | April 4, 2017
Look up the definition of "pink diamond" and in the first paragraph it mentions that there is only one known flawless pink diamond - the Pink Star. Last year the Pink Star went to auction on April 4, and needless to say, records tumbled. It fetched US$71.2 million to set several new auction records, the most impressive of which is that it is now the world's most valuable gem stone.
Sothebys sold the Pink Star for HK$553 million (US$71.2 million), more than doubling the record for a fancy vivid pink diamond that was set at $31.56 million in Geneva in May 2016 for the 15.38-carat "Unique Pink" diamond.
The Pink Star was acquired by renowned jeweler Chow Tai Fook, and has joined a number of outstanding stones in the company's collection including the Aurora Green (a 5.03-carat vivid green diamond which set a new world record for a green diamond of US$16.8 million) when it was acquired, and the Cullinan Heritage (a 507-carat rough diamond acquired for US$35.3 million in 2010). Full Story
DNQ - Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci
$450,312,500 | Christies | November 15, 2017
Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) is a 500-year-old painting by Leonardo da Vinci of Jesus Christ that has long been known but was considered lost. It had actually been over-painted and sold for £45 at a Sothebys London auction in 1958, attributed to one of Leonardo's students, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. In 2005, it was acquired for less than $10,000 at an auction in New Orleans by a consortium of art dealers that believed it to be the lost masterpiece. The painting was then restored by Dianne Dwyer Modestini and authenticated as a painting by Leonardo.
In May, 2013, it changed hands privately for $75 million, then again for $127.5 million before selling at auction by Christie's in New York for a price more than double the previous world record. The purchaser was the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism and the painting will go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The full history of the most valuable painting in history is well told by Christies.
The homo sapien species has created some astonishingly accomplished individuals, whom we refer to as polymaths or homo universalis. Considering the vast body of work of Leonardo da Vinci in completely unrelated fields, many of which we have covered during the 16-year history of this publication, his contributions to the world of art are truly beyond comparison. Mona Lisa was already the best known and most valuable painting in history.
Other articles in this series
This is a separate document to our six part series exploring the most valuable scientific documents and manuscripts ever sold at auction, which is continually updated. The introduction to the scientific documents marketplace is the first part of that series, and separate articles cover numbers #50-41, numbers #40-31, numbers #30-21, numbers #20-11 and the top 10.
You may also like, The 50 most valuable scientific documents of 2016.