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.