The 60 most valuable scientific artifacts of 2018
This is our third annual survey of the most valuable scientific manuscripts and instruments sold during the calendar year, and because it has become increasingly difficult to frame a set of rules on what constitutes a scientific document, manuscript or instrument, we've changed the rules slightly, broadening the definition to "scientific artifacts."
This year, for example, our list contains calculus done on a table napkin in a "topless bar" by Nobel-Prize-winning American physicist Richard Feynman. It might not have made the cut under the old definition. Feynman dominates this year's list with numerous important documents coming to market at Sotheby's History of Science & Technology sale on November 30, not the least of which was his Nobel Prize, which is also a scientific artifact rather than a scientific manuscript or apparatus/instrument.
There were also segments of the Wright Flyer sold this year (two parts of the propeller and two snips of fabric from the wing skin), parts that had flown to Tranquility Base on the moon and back on Apollo XI, taking part in the two most significant achievements in aerospace history, and without a change in our rules, they wouldn't be in the list either.
Given we have we broadened the concept to scientific artifacts, instead of framing these prices in perspective as we have done in previous years by including the prices fetched by art, jewelry, cars, stamps, movie and sporting memorabilia etcetera, we are creating an entirely separate listing of the most remarkable objects sold at auction last year, which will be published shortly.
That said, we have still included a number of items – such as a job application from Apple founder Steve Jobs, and a violin owned by Albert Einstein and a model of the Death Star –that still do not qualify under our expanded "scientific artifacts" definition, but provide intriguing reference points. These items are marked "DNQ" in the following list.
As usual with our lists, if an object is sold in a currency other than USD, we convert all sales into USD on the day of sale using the prevailing exchange rates of the day. Unless otherwise indicated, all prices are in USD.
61 | $156,250 | "Inside the Atom": a series of speech notes by Richard Feynman (1944-45)
Auction house: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$156,250
Official Estimate: US$40,000 to $60,000 | Date of sale: November 30, 2018
This lot comprised drafts of two, maybe three, different speeches given by Richard Feynman in the period 1944 to 1945 about the engineering problems of the atomic bomb, though the audience was perhaps the only group of people in the world with any understanding of nuclear technology at that time.
At the request of Edward Teller ("the father of the hydrogen bomb"), Feynman gave a series of lectures to fellow members of the Manhattan Project, the top secret American military project which developed the nuclear weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
These notes are believed to have been used for those lectures, and discuss the design & chemistry of the bomb, safety issues regarding the separation of the isotopes of uranium 238 and 235, and were clearly written at a time when the new element of plutonium was still classified, as Feynman refers to it using the code word "49" – the reverse of the element's atomic number of 94. The above excerpt from the notes discusses "peace time applications" such as "autos - rockets - submarines driven by peas of uranium."
60 | $156,250 | Table napkin calculus on serviette from Gianonni's Topless Bar by Richard Feynman
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$156,250
Official Estimate: US$70,000 to $100,000 | Date of sale: November 30, 2018
From Richard Feynman's book, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!: "There was a period when there were topless restaurants in town: You could go there for lunch or dinner, and the girls would dance without a top, and after a while without anything. One of these places, it turned out, was only a mile and a half away from my house, so I went there very often. I'd sit in one of the booths and work a little physics on the paper placemats with the scalloped edges, and sometimes I'd draw one of the dancing girls or one of the customers, just to practice."
The above table napkin resulted from such an educational excursion. There's much more on this subject in the book, Great Physicists.
DNQ | $161,200 | R2-D2
Auction House: Profiles in History | Sale price: USD $161,200
Official Estimate: US$100,000 to $200,000 | Date of sale: May 5, 2018
The small astromech droid R2-D2 is one of the world's most beloved robots, having appeared in 9 of the 10 Star Wars films to date, but prices of this magnitude are normally reserved for items that have appeared on screen.
This remote controlled R2-D2 created its own celebrity status though, as it was built for use in Disney Parks using originals from the initial Star Wars Trilogy as reference, then was used 24/7 at Walt Disney World and Disneyland's Tomorrowland and in numerous special events such as the "Star Wars Celebration" in 2010, the re-opening of "Star Tours - The Adventure Continues" where it appeared with George Lucas and John Stewart (pictured above). It was also the representative of Lucasfilm when it presented Luke Skywalker's screen-used Light Saber to NASA so that it could flown on board the Space Shuttle.
Apart from having been recently refurbished with a new battery, it makes 53 proprietary sounds from the Star Wars movies, and has an array of fiber optic lighting tricks.
59 | $162,500 | Complete Gemini G-2C-4 Space Suit
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$162,500
Official Estimate: US$100,000 to $150,000 | Date of sale: November 29, 2018
This space suit is extraordinarily rare as it is complete in every respect, and such complete suits have in every other instance, been bequeathed by NASA to a museum, usually the Smithsonian. It is a Gemini G-2C-4 Full High Altitude Pressure Suit, including inner pressure suit and outer cover layer, complete with GH-2C-7 Helmet, GG-2C-16 gloves made to fit Pete Conrad, and GB-5C-9 boots made to fit Frank Borman, manufactured by the David Clark Company for NASA between 1963 and 1965.
By comparison, the (fictional) space suit worn by Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the 1979 science fiction movie Alien, fetched $204,800 at auction in June, and Neil Armstrong's flight suit worn aboard Gemini 8, the 1966 mission that performed the first docking of two spacecraft in flight, fetched $109,375.
58 | $174,044 | Da Qing wan nian yi tong di li quantu (c. 1811)
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: £137,500
Official Estimate: £50,000 to £80,000 | Date of sale: December 12, 2018
Translating roughly to "Complete Geographical Map of the Great Qing Dynasty," this is one of just seven known examples of the famous blue map.
From Richard A. Pegg's, Cartographic Traditions in East Asian Maps: "Maps are the manifestation of an intellectual construct of physical and metaphysical environments. They are rich cultural objects presenting and transmitting information about time and place of production. A map is not neutral – it is an interactive, constructed representation of space as perceived and presented by its maker and then interpreted by the viewer. Maps thus reveal methodological relationships between artistic and scientific approaches, aesthetics and functionality and form and content in the context of visual culture. And given their subjective nature, maps reproduce the views or perspectives of their makers."
From the same book, this "'complete' map minimizes the European notion of a map of the world, its centralized and marginalizing construct confirming the Qing/Chinese notion of the Central Kingdom' (Pegg). Although Russia, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Korea are clearly defined (especially the latter which has a large textual commentary, indicating its status as the chief vassal state), there are no international borders: 'The intentionally vague geopolitical lines of the [empire's] frontiers and beyond clearly indicate the Qing's perception of the world around them... all foreign entities simply inhabited the fringes of the empire'"
DNQ | $174,757 | Steve Jobs Signed Job Application
Auction House: RR Auction | Sale price: US$174,757
Official Estimate: US$50,000 to $60,000 | Date of sale: March 15, 2018
If genius came knocking, would you recognize it? This rather lacklustre 1973 job application from Steve Jobs, three years before he co-founded a company that would influence history, begs that question. After working as a technician for Atari in 1974, Jobs and Steve Wozniak (pictured in 1976 above) started Apple Computer in 1976.
57 | $175,000 | Apollo 11 Lunar Module Flown Section of the Wright Flyer's Wing Fabric
Auction House: Heritage Auctions | Sale price: US$175,000
Official Estimate: Not Available | Date of sale: November 3, 2018
One of the highlights of the scientific auction year was the sale of around 1000 artifacts from the Armstrong Family Collection by Heritage Auctions, the memorabilia collection assembled by Neil Armstrong (1930 - 2012), the Commander of Apollo XI and the first person to walk on the Moon.
Among the highlights of the sale were six pieces of the Wright Flyer, the plane that the Wright Brothers flew to accomplish the first successful powered flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. Under a special arrangement with the Air Force Museum, Armstrong carried material from the historic airplane's propeller and wing in his personal preference kit (PPK) on Apollo 11 and took it with him to Tranquility Base, the site of the moon landing. After the mission, Armstrong delivered the material to the Air Force Museum, which allowed him to retain a portion of it. The material saved by the Air Force Museum is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. The Armstrong Family Collection sale featured two pieces of spruce from the Wright Flyer's propeller and four pieces of muslin cloth from its left wing.
56 | $183,000 |
The Birds of Great Britain
by John Gould
Auction House: Arader Galleries | Sale price: US$183,000
Official Estimate: US$90,000 to $120,000 | Date of sale: March 31, 2018
John Gould (1804 - 1881) is one of the best known ornithologists in history, with at least one of his numerous books appearing each year in our most valuable scientific documents listings. This year, four different titles by Gould appear in this listing, and a fifth just missed out. Gould's role in history involves far more than just publishing books on birds and mammals though, as he played a crucial role in identifying the bird specimens from Charles Darwin's second voyage on HMS Beagle, making Darwin aware that the birds that were thought to be different varieties of the same species he had collected from each island, were actually separate species. This was an important step in the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution.
The Birds of Great Britain was published by Gould in 25 parts between 1863 and 1873. With many previous books already published on the subject, it is understandable that he would go to greater effort to publish a book about the birds of his homeland.
The plates within this book depict scenes with more sophisticated subjects than Gould's previous works, including nests, chicks and eggs. In his preface to the introduction, published last in 1873, he wrote, "I also felt that there was an opportunity of greatly enriching the work by giving figures of the young of many of the species of various genera - a thing hitherto almost entirely neglected by authors and I feel assured that this infantile age of birdlife will be of much interest for science."
55 | $187,500 |
A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Hummingbirds
by John Gould
Auction House: Arader Galleries | Sale price: US$187,500
Official Estimate: US$200,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: September 29, 2018
This lot comprised all seven volumes of 'A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Hummingbirds' by John Gould (1804 - 1881) and a supplement completed after the author's death by R. Bowdler Sharpe. Gould was particularly fascinated with hummingbirds, identifying more than 400 species during his life's work. His personal collection of hummingbirds, from which the plates in this monograph are drawn, was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
In addition to being a rare complete first edition copy of this work, its provenance included being the personal copy of celebrated ornithologist Frederick Ducane Godman, himself the author of A Monograph of the Petrels and Natural History of the Azores.
54 | $187,500 | Thomas Schelling's Nobel Prize
"for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis"
Auction House: Nate D Sanders Sale price: US$187,500
Official Estimate: US$150,000 plus | Date of sale: May 31, 2018
One of the gems of this year's auction lots was the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, awarded to Thomas Crombie Schelling "for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis."
Schelling, who died in December 2016, was the foremost expert on game theory as it applies to nuclear weaponry and international relations, and whose theory remains as relevant now as it was at the height of the Cold War when he came up with the concept of ''uncertain retaliation,'' expressed in his 1960 book, The Strategy of Conflict.
In The Strategy of Conflict, he argues that unpredictability, a higher tolerance for risk, and a willingness to feign irrationality in decision making can lead, if performed correctly, to a superior position over one's opponents, especially with nuclear weapons.
This ''Madman Theory'' was used by Richard Nixon in his negotiations with the Soviet Union and North Vietnam, and many experts have stated that both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are currently using the strategy in negotiating with each other. Schelling was also one of the founding fathers of the modern, leadership-oriented John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and made wide-ranging policy contributions helping to curtail smoking, confront racial segregation, and address climate change.
53 | $189,866 | Two autograph manuscript sledging journals from the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: £150,000
Official Estimate: £120,000 to £180,000 | Date of sale: December 12, 2018
Two extraordinary autograph manuscript sledging journals by Tryggve Gran, one covering November 7, 1911 to February 25, 1912, the other from October 29, 1912 to February 17, 1913. The latter journal documenting the search for and tragic discovery of the party of Captain Robert Falcon Scott ("Scott of the Antarctic"). A supremely important piece of history.
DNQ | $192,000 | Type-2 Phaser pistol from
Auction House: Profiles in History | Sale price: US$192,000
Official Estimate: Not available | Date of sale: December 11, 2018
The British sci-fi television series Doctor Who (1963 - 1989, 2005 - present) may have run for longer, but based on prices fetched by memorabilia at auction, Star Trek fans are the most prolific and rabid tribal group of the sci-fi community, and artifacts that appeared on-screen in Star Trek: The Original Series are the most valuable.
Legions of Trekkies have seen memorabilia from the series become the most valuable television memorabilia of all, and the Type-2 Phaser pistol is one of the most sought-after of all. This Type-2 Phaser was screen-used by Doctor Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and is now the most valuable example sold to date at auction, though an original series Phaser Rifle sold for $231,000 at Julien's in 2013.
52 | $200,000 |
De lateribus et angulis triangulorum
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: US$200,000
Official Estimate: US$160,000 to $220,000 | Date of sale: December 4, 2018
Nicolaus Copernicus is one of a handful of scientists who fundamentally altered the course of history. He did so with the publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres) in 1543, offering the first compelling evidence that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Aristarchus of Samos had proposed such a model 1800 years prior, but that model was rejected in favor of the geocentric theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy.
Copernicus saw the first printed copy of his magnum opus on his deathbed, but would have had very little inkling, even then, of the profound impact he would have on mankind's understanding. He only published one other scientific work under his own name, and De lateribus et angulis triangulorum is that book. It is extremely rare, with only three copies having sold at auction in the last 40 years.
The auctioned copy includes the section on trigonometry that appeared in De Revolutionibus, making it a partial first edition of one of science's landmark publications. The book also contains the first publication of Rheticus' trigonometric tables.
51 | $200,000 | Archive of manuscripts on Solid State Physics spanning Richard Feynman's career (1948-1985)
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$200,000
Official Estimate: US$100,000 to $150,000| Date of sale: November 30, 2018
Feynman considers various aspects of solid state physics, including the Shockley experiment, cyclotron resonance, electrical conductivity, lattice defects, semi-conductors, impurities, solar cells, lasers, rectifiers & transistors, free electron gas, tunnel diodes, forces on electrons, and more. While some of the papers appear to span from his early days as a professor at Cornell, the majority are likely lecture notes for courses he taught at Caltech in the mid-1960s. The auction description includes hi-res imagery of many of these notes.
50 | $201,300 | 1755 Map of North America by John Mitchell
Auction House: Arader Galleries | Sale price: US$201,300
Official Estimate: US$180,000 to $220,000 | Date of sale: July 29, 2018
A map of the British and French Dominions in North America drawn in 1755 by John Mitchell (1711-1768), just prior to the global Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763). The result of five years of study during which Mitchell drew upon every available source of geographical information, it was the most comprehensive and up-to-date colonial map of North America available at the time. It was subsequently used to determine boundaries in the Treaty of Paris between France, Spain and Great Britain and was still being used in boundary disputes until 1932. It is regarded by many as the most important map in American history.
Arader Galleries sold an even rarer first issue, first edition of the Mitchell Map in 2017 for $508,000.
DNQ | $204,800 | Sigourney Weaver spacesuit from
Auction House: Profiles in History | Sale price: US$204,800
Official Estimate: US$40,000 to $60,000 | Date of sale: June 7, 2018
This is the spacesuit worn by Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the closing scenes of Ridley Scott's 1979 movie, Alien. In 2008, Alien was ranked by the American Film Institute as the seventh-best film of all time in the science fiction genre.
By contrast, the genuine flight suit Neil Armstrong wore aboard Gemini 8, the 1966 mission that performed the first docking of two spacecraft in flight, sold for $109,375 on November 3, 2018.
49 | $208,358 | Réunion de 178 imprimés de la documentation personnelle d'Albert Einstein
Auction House: Artcurial | Sale price: €182,000
Official Estimate: €30,000 to €50,000 | Date of sale: November 19, 2018
This lot went for surprisingly little given it was Einstein's own collection of his published papers. It isn't complete but it is one of the most complete collections in existence and comprises 178 documents including 146 prints or extracts of original scientific articles by Einstein and 32 reproductions of articles and letters, in German, English or Spanish, from the physicist's personal documentation, sometimes with annotations.
It was collated by Einstein's secretary Helen Dukas. It contains a dedication of his hand to Professor Gerald Holton, dated August 3, 1964, thanking him for helping to organize the scientist's papers after Einstein's death on April 18, 1955. It is accompanied by an envelope to Hotlon's address, which features an American stamp with the image of Einstein. Many of Albert Einstein's publications are in it, especially those concerning the theory of relativity.
48 | $213,769 |
Le Operazioni Del Compasso Geometrico
by Galileo Galilei
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: £162,500
Official Estimate: £60,000 to £80,000 | Date of sale: September 18, 2018
One of two contributions to this list from Italian polymath (astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher, inventor and mathematician), Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642),
Galileo's compasso was an analogue calculator he manufactured and sold between 1595 and 1598, and it was arguably the most useful mathematical instrument of its period, being particularly useful as a surveyor's tool. As a calculating device, Galileo's compass remained unsurpassed until the advent of the slide rule in the mid-19th-century. The entire paper with illustrations is available online at the Library of Congress.
The compasso was based on the proportional compass, an instrument first developed by Federico Commandino (1509 – 1575), but Galileo's version included numerous additions and improvements. This is one of the 60 handbooks produced by Galileo for patrons and buyers of his geometrical and military compass.
DNQ | $220,000 | Jane Fonda's space rifle from
Auction House: Profiles in History | Sale price: US$220,000
Official Estimate: US$15,000 to $20,000 | Date of sale: June 7, 2018
Two space rifles used by Jane Fonda in the Roger Vadim sci-fi movie Barbarella (1968) went to auction at Profiles in History in June. The longer rifle, having first appeared on the cover of the top-selling and extremely influential Life Magazine in the massive pre-launch publicity, was expected to fetch more, with the smaller rifle expected to sell for between $15,000 and $20,000. When the bidding stopped, this rifle had fetched more than 10 times its estimate, while the longer rifle sold for $70,000.
47 | $223,241 | Manuscrit autographe signé inédit by Albert Einstein c. 1941-1945
Auction House: Artcurial | Sale price: €195,000
Official Estimate: €50,000 to €70,000| Date of sale: November 19, 2018
This unpublished autograph manuscript, circa 1941-1945, by Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), is a working draft exploring the construction of a Unified Field Theory based on a Hermitean metric tensor field in a space of four complex, or equivalently eight real, dimensions. Einstein's primary focus for the majority of his life was to derive field equations ''analogous to the gravitational equations of the General Theory of Relativity.'' This paper previously sold at Christie's for $230,000 in 2009, and is believed to be the last such Einstein paper in private hands.
46 | $225,000 | German Enigma codebook
Auction House: Bonhams | Sale price: US225,000
Official Estimate: US$200,00 to $300,00 | Date of sale: June 12, 2018
While German Enigma encryption machines are rare, their handbooks are even rarer, and even rarer again are those used by the German U-boat (submarine) fleet, as the books were made of paper that dissolves in water. As the auction report for this lot states: "Some 700 U Boats were sunk at sea during the war, and of the remaining 300 many were scuttled by the German Navy in 1945, without giving up their secret codes or enigma machines."
Only one Enigma code book has ever previously reached auction, selling for $146,500 in 2014, more than any Enigma machine had sold for at that time.
45 | $225,000 |
The Birds of Asia
by John Gould
Auction House: Arader Galleries (no link) | Sale price: US$225,000
Official Estimate: US$175,000 to $225,000 | Date of sale: September 29, 2018
Another John Gould (1804 - 1881) masterpiece, this was a first edition copy of The Birds of Asia, and just the third copy to have ever sold for more than $200,000. Arader Galleries sold a copy in 2016 for $244,000 and Christie's sold a copy in 1980 for $400,000.
The Birds of Asia was originally issued in 35 parts, the last three parts being issued after Gould's death by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, with the entire publishing process lasting more than thirty years.
The Birds of Asia includes more than 500 magnificent portraits of brightly colored exotic birds from all corners of the far east. It was the most comprehensive study of Asiatic birds of its time, and recorded the extraordinary diversity of species of birds as disparate as pheasants from China, birds of paradise from Indonesia, parrots, kingfishers, and woodpeckers.
44 | $254,000 |
The Birds of Australia
by John Gould
Auction House: Arader Galleries | Sale price: US$254,000
Official Estimate: US$300,000 to $500,000 | Date of sale: September 29, 2018
Two copies of this book by respected ornithologist John Gould (1804 - 1881) were sold for near identical prices in 2018, with Bonhams selling a copy of The Birds of Australia for £187,500 ($249,291) on May 30, 2018. This is one of four Gould books in the 2018 Top 50 scientific documents and a fifth Gould book narrowly missed out on a place too. Bonhams sold The Birds of New Guinea and the Adjacent Papuan Islands on May 30, 2018 for £102,500 (USD $136,279), which was a world record price for the book.
DNQ | $250,000 |
A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
by Thomas Harriot and John White
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$250,000
Official Estimate: US$200,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: January 17, 2018
Thomas Harriot (1560 – 1621) was an English astronomer, mathematician, ethnographer and translator who made many significant advances across many scientific fields, but he is best known for this work, as it the first book about North America by an Englishman who had actually visited the continent. The book describes the first British colony to be established in the New World, the first eyewitness pictorial depictions of Native Americans, and the first illustrated account wholly dedicated to any portion of what is now the United States. (See the full English translation in PDF form).
DNQ | $256,000 | Death Star model from
Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi
Auction House: Profiles in History | Sale price: US$256,000
Official Estimate: US$150,000 to $250,000 | Date of sale: June 7, 2018
This spectacularly detailed Death Star model was created by ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) for the movie Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. In the film, the Death Star is a moon-sized fortress designed for massive power-projection capabilities, capable of destroying entire planets with one blast from its superlasers.
In 2012, a proposal on the White House website urging the government to build a real Death Star as an economic stimulus and job creation measure gained more than 30,000 signatures, enough to qualify for an official response. The official response was released in January 2013 and contained the following: "the cost of building a real Death Star has been estimated at $850 quadrillion by the Lehigh University, or about 13,000 times the amount of mineable resources on Earth ... the Administration does not support blowing up planets," and questioned funding a weapon "with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship" as reasons for denying the petition.
43 | $260,448 |
Radioactivité : dactylographie corrigée
by Marie Curie
Auction House: Artcurial | Sale price: €227,500
Official Estimate: €180,000 to €250,000 | Date of sale: November 19, 2018
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was a Polish-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.
This is the final draft (with about 1200 corrections, additions, equations and diagrams in the hand of Marie Curie) of the second part of her Radioactivity Treatise, from Chapter IX to the last chapter, done in 1933-1934.
Marie Curie died in 1934, with this book published posthumously in 1935.
DNQ | $262,500 |
Blush-Colored Crinum (Crinum Erubrscens)
by Pierre-Joseph Redouté
Auction House: Arader Galleries | Sale price: US$262,500
Official Estimate: US$150,000 to $200,000 | Date of sale: September 29, 2018
Pierre-Joseph Redouté ( 1759 – 1840) was a painter and botanist known for his watercolors of flowers. He has been called "the Raphael of flowers" and "the greatest botanical illustrator of all time." We don't count individual illustrations in our scientific artifacts listing, but Redouté is a regular in our annual listings with a copy of his Les Roses selling for $200,000 at Sothebys in October, 2017 and $128,666 (€113,738) at Aguttes on November 14, 2018 (full copy available on the internet) and a copy of Redouté's Les Liliacées fetching $244,000 at Arader Galleries in October, 2017.
Redouté's Les Liliacées was produced under the patronage of Empress Josephine of France (the wife of Napoleon) 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. Empress Josephine's personal copy sold for $5,500,000 in 1985, selling to a syndicate headed by rare book dealer W. Graham Arader, who also sold this lot from Arader Galleries in New York.
42 | $268,084 | Autograph manuscript leaf from
The Expression of emotions of man and animals
by Charles Darwin
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: £200,000
Official Estimate: £40,000 to £60,000 | Date of sale: July 10, 2018
Two leafs of the manuscript from the final work in Darwin's main series of evolutionary writings, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), went to auction this year, with which was originally intended as a single chapter in The Descent of Man, explored the evolutionary continuity between man and animals in their ability to feel and express emotions.
The first leaf, listed above, sold for £200,000 (US$268,084), with the second leaf fetching £137,500 against an estimate of £25,000 to £35,000.
DNQ | $275,000 | Orpheus Astronomical Table Clock c. 1570
Auction House: Bonhams | Sale price: US$275,000
Official Estimate: Not available | Date of sale: December 6, 2018
The capabilities of this clock have long since been miniaturized and incorporated into wristwatches and are trivial in comparison to those of a smartphone, but 500 years ago, it had the capabilities, if not the intent, of a bleeding edge scientific instrument. It has an alarm, strikes every 15 minutes, and also indicates the phase of the Moon and the Ptolemaic aspects of the planets. It is also extremely rare, being one of just 11 known Orpheus Clocks produced in Southern Germany during the 16th century.
41 | $275,000 | Apollo 11 Lunar Flown Module Part of the Wright Flyer's Propeller
Auction House: Heritage Auctions | Sale price: US$275,000
Official Estimate: US$72,000 to $108,000 | Date of sale: November 3, 2018
From the Armstrong Family Collection (the memorabilia collection assembled by Neil Armstrong), there were two lots sold at Heritage Auctions which comprised small segments of the propellor of the Wright Flyer, which made the first successful powered flight in 1903. Armstrong carried material from the historic airplane's propeller and wing in his personal preference kit (PPK) on Apollo 11 and took it with him to Tranquility Base, the site of the moon landing. After the mission, Armstrong delivered the material to the Air Force Museum, which allowed him to retain a portion of it. The material saved by the Air Force Museum is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. The two pieces of spruce from the Wright Flyer's propeller each sold for $275,000 (Lot #52284 and Lot #52285).
40 | $275,000 | Apollo 11 Lunar Module Flown MS64 NGC Gilt Fliteline Medallion
Auction House: Heritage Auctions | Sale price: US$275,000
Official Estimate: US$24,000 to $36,000 | Date of sale: November 3, 2018
The top result for a medal in the Armstrong Family Collection auction was the $275,000 paid for an Apollo 1 Gilt Fliteline Medal that Armstrong carried with him on the Apollo XI lunar module. As can be seen, the medal was not engraved with mission dates as the Apollo 1 was cancelled after an accident during a training exercise killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee (pictured above left) on January 27, 1967. That's the Apollo XI crew at right.
39 | $275,000 |
Opus Galli Anonymi
autograph manuscript in Latin by Isaac Newton
Auction House: Bonhams | Sale price: US$275,000
Official Estimate: US$200,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: March 9, 2018
Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) is one of history's greatest scientists. Approximately 10 million words of his writings are extant, and one million of those words are devoted to alchemy, a protoscience that evolved into the science of chemistry. This autograph manuscript entitled Opus Galli Anonymi, relates entirely to alchemy and was purchased by the Indiana University for its project, The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, which is publishing the entire dossier of Newton's alchemical work on the internet and attempting to replicate many of his experiments. You can view the entire document in high resolution here.
Another extensive autograph Newton manuscript on alchemy sold at a Christie's auction on November 1 for £100,000 (US$131,125).
38 | $287,500 |
Novum ac magnum theatrum urbium Belgicae Regiae
by Joan Blaeu
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: US$287,500
Official Estimate: US$250,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: December 4, 2018
Joan Blaeu is one of the towering figures of cartography, carrying on his famous father's work, becoming the official cartographer to the all-powerful Dutch East India Company, and he was also the first mapmaker to incorporate the heliocentric theories of Nicolaus Copernicus into a map of the world.
Blaeu is famous for many groundbreaking atlases, globes and maps, but until the sale of this copy of Novum ac magnum theatrum urbium Belgicae Regiae, a city atlas of the Netherlands and Belgium, it had never fetched more than US$71,573 (£47,500) at auction, and only four had ever passed $20,000 in bidding.
This copy far surpassed any previous copy with its brilliant, delicate and careful coloring (books were colored by hand at this time), and the gold-painted dedication-leaf which validates its status as a presentation copy, most likely for King Philip IV of Spain.
37 | $287,500 | Classical Theory — Self Energy Difficulties — Quantum Theory — Still In Trouble ... by Richard Feynman
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$287,500
Official Estimate: US$50,000 to $70,000 | Date of sale: November 30, 2018
A collection of separate, but likely contemporaneous lecture notes dating to the seminal moment when Feynman pivots from his fall 1948 papers, and turns, making the revolutionary leap the following spring, to the celebrated 1949 Nobel Prize-winning work Space-Time Approach to QED. The earlier pair of papers were written in the months following the famed Pocono Conference, 29 March-2 April 1948, where Feynman & Schwinger had presented complementary theories of QED and the latter had emerged as victor. Nevertheless, Feynman's Diagrammatica prevailed on the next occasion, the Oldstone Conference, 11-14 April 1949 and he submitted his Nobel paper just three weeks later …
36 | $292,800 |
Natural history of parrots
by Francois Levaillant
Auction House: Arader Galleries | Sale price: US$292,800
Official Estimate: US$250,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: January 27, 2018
This is the highest price ever recorded for the finest and best known work of François Levaillant (1753-1824), and for good reason. It is a previously unrecorded large folio issue with the text on "super royal" paper and proof plates in their colored state only, with the engraved titles, but before the addition of the imprint. This is the rarest issue of this work and has survived in very few copies.
Fine Bird Books 1700-1900 by Sacheverell Sitwell elucidates why this book is so sumptuous: "After he had made himself Emperor, it was part of Napoleon's deliberate policy to initiate a series of magnificent publications that would vie with those undertaken on the orders of Louis XIV. These were sent as presents to crowned heads, men of science, and learned bodies, in evidence of the splendours of the Empire ... The works of Levaillant owe their sumptuous character to ... this impetus. His 'Histoire naturelle des perroquets' is, unwittingly, a part of the glories of Napoleonic France."
35 | $294,160 |
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
by Charles Darwin
Auction House: Morton Subastas | Sale price: MXN 5,551,200 (US$288,662)
Official Estimate: MXN 1,000,000 to 1,200,000 | Date of sale: August 21, 2018
Charles Darwin's master work is one of the most important books ever published. "The most important single work in science" (Dibner), and "a turning point, not only in the history of science, but in the history of ideas in general" (DSB) are just two examples of learned opinions of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
Just 1,200 copies were printed of the first edition of this book, and five of those first editions sold at auction in 2018, with the copy sold by Morton Subastas in Mexico City the most expensive. Other first editions sold for $284,839 (£212,500 at Sotheby's on July 10), $162,500 (at Christie's New York on December 4), $125,869 (€109,946 at Artcurial Paris on November 19) and $138,698 (£105,000 at Bonhams London on June 20).
The reason for the particularly high price of the Morton Subastas copy is that it was one of 23 courtesy copies that were delivered by the publisher to scientists and renowned people of the time. The highest price ever achieved for a copy of this book was achieved last year when a copy of the third edition, complete with Darwin's hand-written revisions, sold for $1,054,100 (£788,75) at a Christie's auction on December 13, 2017.
34 | $299,000 | 1875 Colt Model Gatling Gun
Auction House: James D Julia / Morphy | Sale price: US$299,000
Official Estimate: US$125,000 to $155,000 | Date of sale: March 22, 2018
Warfare is a catalyst for rapid technological development, and throughout history, technology has regularly delivered a competitive advantage on the battlefield that has shaped political boundaries. The Gatling Gun is a perfect example of a landmark force multiplier, having been invented during the American Civil War by serial inventor Richard Gatling, though it played only a minor role in the conflict that catalyzed it.
The Gatling Gun's initial 200 rounds per minute rate of fire was eventually increased to more than 600 rounds per minute with revisions to the design, and was used to devastating effect by U.S. troops against Native Americans, in the Japanese Boshin War, the Anglo-Zulu War, the Anglo-Ashanti wars, Anglo-Egyptian War and was the deciding factor in the assault on San Juan Hill during the Spanish–American War.
This particular model is identical to the two Gatling guns that Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer decided to leave at Fort Abraham Lincoln just prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. A Gatling gun or two might have made all the difference.
32 | $300,000 |
The North American Atlas
by William Faden
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$300,000
Official Estimate: US$150,000 to $250,000 | Date of sale: January 17, 2018
In The Mapping of America (Schwartz & Ehrenberg), William Faden's North American Atlas is described as "The rarest and most important atlas treating the events of the American Revolution ... The total number of maps in this atlas varies with the specific edition ... Although the great regional maps of the period were represented, the atlas's major historical contribution is the series of detailed battle plans drawn by eyewitness observers"
With 27 maps, this is not the most complete copy to have come to auction, with the most complete of recent times being the 42 map copy which sold for $341,000 at Swann Galleries on December 8, 2015, a record price at auction for this book. The previousrecord, £130,000 ($205,413), was achieved atSotheby's in London on March 15, 2000.
In addition to the five high resolution maps on the auction page for this book, the Swann Galleries auction page shows all of the maps in the copy sold in 2015, and the Library of Congress also offers an extensive collection of the maps.
32 | $301,769 |
Nautical Atlas of the Mediterranean
by François Ollive (1658)
Auction House: Aguttes | Sale price: €260,000
Official Estimate: €200,000 to €250,000 | Date of sale: June 16, 2018
This rare copy of François Ollive's 1658 Nautical Atlas of the Mediterranean is more a portulan than an atlas in that it is a hand drawn marine navigational instrument for sailors originating from the Marseilles cartography school which flourished in the 17th century. This map has been declared a "national treasure" in France.
31 | $341,375 |
Civitates Orbis Terrarum'
by Georg Braun & Frans Hogenberg
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: £262,000 (video on the auction page)
Official Estimate: £100,000 to £150,000 | Date of sale: November 13, 2018
One of the most ambitious, successful and beautiful publishing projects in history, Georg Braun (1541 – 1622) worked on Civitates Orbis Terrarum (Cities of the World) from 1572 to 1617 and was the only member of the original team which began the project to see the final work published in full. The six volumes contain 546 prospects, bird's-eye views and maps of cities across the world at that time. Although not strictly an atlas, the work is so close in style and name to the atlases of Ortelius, De Jode and Mercator that it is generally considered part of this great tradition.
Though falling just short of the record price for Civitates Orbis Terrarum in GBP (£271,200 in 2005 = USD $474,460), and exceeding the price fetched for another copy (£222,000 in 2007 = US$428,232), the vastly different exchange rates of 2018 saw this book become the third most valuable copy ever sold at auction in USD.
All six volumes of Civitates Orbis Terrarum can be viewed online at the Library of Congress.
30 | $342,303 |
Altes und Neues zur Feld-Theorie
autograph manuscript by Albert Einstein (1929)
Auction House: Artcurial | Sale price: €299,000
Official Estimate: €30,000 to €50,000 | Date of sale: November 19, 2018
A signed autograph Albert Einstein manuscript, with corrections and additions, which formed the basis of an article published in The New York Times on February 3, 1929 explaining the theory of relativity to the public.
29 | $343,750 |
A Mapp of New England
by John Seller (c. 1676)
Auction House: Doyle New York | Sale price: US$343,750
Official Estimate: US$4,000 to $6,000 | Date of sale: November 13, 2018
A rare early English map of New England, by John Seller (1632 - 1697), later to become hydrographer to the King. Created circa 1676, this first edition, second issue map of New England is the first that was not derived from Dutch prototypes.
28 | $348,500 | The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America by John James Audubon & Rev. John Bachman
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: US$348,500
Official Estimate: US$200,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: June 14, 2018
This book is John James Audubon's second masterpiece, behind Audubon's best known Birds of America, which sits atop this list.
"Viviparous" means birthing young from within the body, so this book is essentially a study of North American mammalian wildlife, and each mammal is superbly illustrated in its natural habitat. Equally as as impressive and sweeping as his ornithological work, the "Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America" is the result of the artist/naturalist's years of field research, travel, and seemingly endless study and is the outstanding work on American animals produced in the 19th-century. This book achieved the fourth highest price for this book behind the $793,000 fetched at Guernsey's (New York), in December, 2012, $464,500 at Christies in 2000 and $362,500 at Christie's in 2012, and ahead of another eight copies that have sold for more than $200,000.
The entire book has been digitized by the University of Michigan's Special Collections Library and is available in high resolution for free download and use, with attribution.
27 | $350,000 | A Map Of Mexico, Louisiana And The Missouri Territory by John Hamilton Robinson
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$350,000
Official Estimate: US$200,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: January 17, 2018
John Hamilton Robinson was a combination adventurer and mercenary who was fully committed to the sometimes competing goals of Mexican independence from Spain and the expansion westward of the United States. He conceived of his map in helping both of those endeavors by highlighting the vast territory claimed by both the United States and Spain.
This is a first issue of a very important map of the American southwest and the first map to delineate the border of Texas and Louisiana as established by the crucial Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. This map is one of 10 extant copies and is believed to be one of three copies deposited by Robinson in the Library of Congress to secure copyright.
DNQ | $362,500 | Banana (Musa Paradisiaca) by Pierre-Joseph Redoute
Auction House: Arader Galleries (no link) | Sale price: US$362,500
Official Estimate: US$300,000 to $400,000 | Date of sale: September 29, 2018
26 | $366,000 |
The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands
by Mark Catesby
Auction House: Arader Galleries (no link) | Sale price: US$366,000
Official Estimate: US$250,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: March 31, 2018 | Full copy available on the internet
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."
This sale represents the second highest price ever paid for a copy of this book, with the record being $657,000 at a Sotheby's auction in 2007.
25 | $372,500 |
(The Nuremberg Chronicle)
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: US$372,500
Official Estimate: US$250,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: December 4, 2018
As a biblical paraphrase, Liber Chronicarum (better known as the "Nuremberg Chronicle") is not exactly a scientific document, but it does contains some important maps, so we've included it as an "artifact."
From the auction description: " ... includes two important double-page maps: a fine world map based on Mela's Cosmographia of 1482, and a map of northern and central Europe by Hieronymus Münzer. The world map is one of only three 15th-century maps showing Portuguese knowledge of the Gulf of Guinea of about 1470. The map of Europe is closely associated with Nicolas of Cusa's Eichstätt map, with which it is thought to share a common manuscript source of c.1439-54. It is therefore claimed to be the first modern map of this region to appear in print."
This book is a first edition of the most extensively illustrated book of the 15th century, and as books were colored by hand at that time, this copy is particularly finely colored and illuminated.
24 | $375,000 | Apple-1 Computer
Auction House: RR Auction | Sale price: US$375,000
Official Estimate: US$300,000 to $400,000 | Date of sale: September 25, 2018
Our story previewing this sale suggested that as one of the first 200 Apple computers, this Apple-1 would fetch a bomb, and it did. It isn't the most expensive Apple computer ever sold, with previous Apple-1s having previously fetched $626,967 (€492,000), $664,261 (€513,660) and $905,000 (more here on pricing history).
Another Apple-1 computer sold at Bonhams on December 5, 2018 for $237,500 against an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000.
DNQ | $375,000 |
Confusion de Confusiones
by José Penso de la Vega
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$375,000
Official Estimate: US$200,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: December 18, 2018
Sold to benefit the Rare Book Acquisition Fund of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, this book is the very first book ever written on the stock exchange. It was written in Spanish by José (Joseph) Penso de la Vega, a Spanish merchant, poet, and philanthropist residing in 17th century Amsterdam.
From Wikipedia: "Although not a descriptive account of the process of stock trading, Penso presented the history of speculation in stocks and acquainted the reader with the sophisticated financial instruments used. The dialogue format allowed the reader to understand the respective perspectives of the various market participants and the intricacies of speculation and trading."
Sotheby's has an excellent article on the book, which formulated the first rules of stock speculation (above), offering "a detailed explication of the Amsterdam stock exchange at which he speculated, supposedly losing and winning back his fortune five times. The practices he describes – puts, calls, pools, and manipulations – remain very much in evidence in contemporary exchanges."
You can download a PDF of a complete English translation of the book here.
23 | $376,905 |
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: £284,750
Official Estimate: £80,000 to £120,000 | Date of sale: July 11, 2018
Euclid's Elements is unquestionably the most influential textbook ever written. It is the only writing of classical antiquity to have a continuous history of textbook use from the pre-Christian era to the twentieth century. It was originally written by Euclid in Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt c. 300 BC, 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. It was hence one of the very earliest mathematical works to be printed after the invention of the printing press and has been estimated to be second only to the Bible in the number of editions published since the first printing in 1482.
Readers will recognize some of the diagrams in this book from the textbooks of their youth, as it has been a higher learning text for 2300 years and isn't going out of date any time soon.
The copy which achieved this price is a first edition, printed in Venice in May, 1482 and the £284,750 ($376,905) it fetched makes it the second most expensive copy ever sold, behind only another first edition sold by Sotheby's in 2001 for $511,750.
22 | $381,000 |
by Claudius Ptolemaeus (1513)
Auction House: Arader Galleries | Sale price: US$381,000
Official Estimate: US$250,000 to $300,000 | Date of sale: April 1, 2018
Claudius Ptolemy (AD 100 – c. 170) was a Greco-Egyptian writer, mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet who created the atlas Cosmographia (also known as Geography and Geographia) whilst living in Alexandria (Egypt) in AD 150, based on a now-lost atlas by Marinus of Tyre using additional Roman and Persian sources. It was translated into Arabic in the 9th century and Latin in 1406, becoming the world's first printed atlas in 1477.
Copies of this famous atlas regularly come to auction and they almost never fail to sell for extraordinary amounts. Some previous sales of Cosmographia include $1,267,500 at a Sotheby's auction in June, 1998, $778,803 (£506,500) at a Sotheby's auction in November, 2014 and $725,000 at a Christies auction in April, 2016, while the record price for a copy of the original 1477 printing of Cosmographia is $3,966,804 (£2,139,000) achieved by Sotheby's (London) in 2006 and one of the 10 most valuable scientific documents of all-time.
21 | $387,000 | "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" (the lecture that heralded the new field of nanotechnology) by Richard Feynman
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$387,000
Official Estimate: | Date of sale: November 30, 2018
This is a draft of Feynman's famous lecture entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom: An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics," which was originally given at the annual American Physical Society at Caltech on December 29, 1959. This draft was apparently prepared for a version of the talk given at El Camino College, in Torrance, California.
From the auction description: "In his famed address, Feynman imagined 'that we could arrange atoms one by one, just as we want them,' and in this spirit he posed two challenges that would lead to the development of the field of Nanotechnology, offering $1,000 dollars each to whomever could 1) construct a tiny motor (achieved much to Feynman's surprise by Caltech grad William McClellan in 1960), and 2) to whomever could fit the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin. The second challenge was met in 1985 by Tom Newman, a graduate of Stanford University."
DNQ | $389,113 | A collection of medals and awards to Stephen Hawking
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: £296,750
Official Estimate: £10,000 to £15,000 | Date of sale: November 8, 2018
A collection of medals and awards to Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) during his spectacular career. The lot comprised: The Eddington Medal awarded by the Royal Astronomical Society, 1975; The Institute of Physics James Clerk Maxwell Medal for outstanding early-career contributions to theoretical physics, 1976; The Albert Einstein Award for achievement in the natural sciences, in memoriam Lewis and Rosa Strauss, 1978; Medal of the Albert Einstein Society, Bern, 1979; Gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1985; The Britannica Award presented by Encyclopedia Britannica for the dissemination of knowledge, 1989; and the Medal of the Society of Arts Manufactures and Commerce, 1999.
DNQ | $389,113 | Hawking wheelchair
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: £296,750
Official Estimate: £10,000 to £15,000 | Date of sale: November 8, 2018
Not exactly a scientific artifact, but we've listed it in case the readership was interested. This is Hawking's earliest motorized wheelchair, and if it is familiar, it is because it was used during his international book tour for his 1988 best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.
From the auction description: "Stephen Hawking's rather mischievous attitude to piloting his wheelchair became legendary, both in Cambridge and further afield: having run over Prince Charles's toes during a meeting in 1977, he is said to have regretted not doing the same to the then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was said that those who annoyed him found themselves a target, an allegation to which he responded with characteristic wit and humour: 'A malicious rumour. I'll run over anyone who repeats it' (Ferguson, 2011)"
20 | $399,000 | "Two Objectives" by Richard Feynman
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$399,000
Official Estimate: US$30,000 to $40,000 | Date of sale: November 30, 2018
This document is a two autograph manuscripts by Richard Feynman. The auction description explains their significance: "In the first manuscript, possibly written at some point before coming to Cornell, perhaps while still at Princeton, Feynman brilliantly uses his Path Integral to "derive" the Schrödinger Equation. This bit of magic, in its first incarnation dating to a chance 1941 Princeton chat over beers with Herbert Jehle (a student of Schrödinger recently escaped from Nazi Germany), has been famously recounted many times. The key insight hinged on Dirac's use of the word "analogue," which Feynman had mistakenly interpreted as "equal"; once Jehle explained the next day that Dirac's language implied "proportional", rather than equal, Feynman was unleashed.
"In a flash, the equivalence between Hamiltonian & Lagrangian formulations of quantum mechanics was established, the proportionality constant (essentially "A" in the manuscript...) calculated, and with this creative assault upon the black board, Feynman had hurled himself (as well as the stunned Jehle, along for the ride) far beyond Dirac, and forged a powerful new tool of quantum physics.
"In the second manuscript, on Cornell watermarked paper, he again invokes the essential Feynman notion of a "sum over histories", highlighting the key mathematical object Fo(2,1), known as the "free-particle propagator," bottom recto, before turning his attention, au verso, to the Dirac Equation. Eventually, these ideas, greatly extended, were consolidated in the 1965 Caltech classic, Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals, by Feynman & Hibbs (lot 109 at this sale which fetched $68,750)."
19 | $432,500 | Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: US$432,500
Official Estimate: US$7,000 to $10,000 | Date of sale: October 25, 2018
This sale will forever be recorded as a landmark, partly because it is the first ever Artificial Intelligence artwork to be sold by a major auction house, partly because it fetched US$432,500 and partly because the AI art community is frustrated such a basic example of algorithmic art has achieved such success. The work, entitled Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is a depiction of a fictional character and sold for an astounding 45 times its upper estimate. Full story
18 | $447,547 | 13th century Arabic translation of Euclid's Elements
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: £321,000
Official Estimate: £200,000 to £300,000 | Date of sale: April 25, 2018
This previously unrecorded manuscript is a rare and Arabic edition of Euclid's Elements (see the Latin version which sold for $376,905 elsewhere in this listing), illustrated with copious finely-executed geometric diagrams that has been carbon-dated to the thirteenth century.
17 | $444,500 | Enigma Enciphering Machine
Auction House: Bonhams | Sale price: US$444,500
Official Estimate: Not Available | Date of sale: December 5, 2018
German WW2 Enigma cipher machines have been a perennial favorite of technology collectors over recent years with just a handful of the rare machines ever reaching market, and fetching $547,500 in 2017, $435,000 and $463,500 in 2016, and $365,000 (£237,000) a significant jump over previous prices, no doubt due to the success of the 2014 feature movie, The Imitation Game.
Bonhams seems to have cornered the market on Enigma machines, having sold the vast majority that have come to market, including a three-rotor machine for £125,000 (US$164,489) and a four-rotor machine for £187,500 (US$246,733), both on September 19, 2018, plus this pristine four-rotor which sold with the exceptionally rare hydra key, complete in its original envelope. The Hydra key is the code needed to start up the an enigma machine, and this machine is also in perfect operating condition.
16 | $468,500 | Apollo 11 Lunar Module Flown Spacecraft Identification Plate
Auction House: Heritage Auctions | Sale price: US$468,500
Official Estimate: Not available | Date of sale: November 3, 2018
This metal ID plate measures just 5.25" x 1.75" (13.3 cm x 4.4 cm) but bears considerably greater significance than its size suggests. Three of these Lunar Module-5 ID plates were flown to the moon on Apollo XI and following the successful completion of the mission, they were mounted on plaques by Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation and presented to Neil Armstrong,Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. This is the first such plaque ever to go to auction and was the plaque presented to mission commander and the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong.
15 | $477,629 |
De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes
by Leonhart Fuchs
Auction House: Pierre Bergé & Associates | Sale price: €422,659
Official Estimate: €300,000 to €400,000 | Date of sale: December 14, 2018
A finely-colored first edition of "perhaps the most celebrated and most beautiful herbal ever published" (PMM), De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Latin for "Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants") 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 rightfully 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".
The price fetched by this copy is the highest ever recorded, exceeding the £309,000 (US$405,799) fetched by Sotheby's in November, 2017. A second copy of this book was sold by Arader Galleries for US$219,600 on January 27, 2018. Full copy available on the internet
14 | $480,000 |
Carte Nouvelle De La Partie De L'Ouest De La Louisianne
by Jean-Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US480,000
Official Estimate: US120,000 to 180,000 | Date of sale: June 28, 2018
French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe (1683 – 1765) led a four-year expedition to the American Southwest in 1718, exploring the areas now known as Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. This detailed manuscript map of Texas, Louisiana, and large portions of the Old Southwest was prepared by the French Hydrographic Office in Paris from his now-lost original notes and sketches.
13 | $509,965 |
Real Expedición Anticuaria
by José Luciano Castaneda and Guillermo Dupaix
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: €439,500
Official Estimate: €200,000 to €300,000 | Date of sale: September 10, 2018
This set of manuscripts and original drawings records the three expeditions to Mexico (the Real Expedición Anticuaria) of Captain Guillermo Dupaix (1746 - 1818) and José Luciano Castañeda (1774 - 1834), on the orders of King Charles IV of Spain.
Only six other sets of Dupaix expeditions manuscripts and original Castañeda drawings are known and they are all in public collections. This is the only set in private hands.
DNQ | $516,500 | Violin belonging to Albert Einstein
Auction House: Bonhams | Sale price: US$516,500
Official Estimate: US$100,000 to $150,000 | Date of sale: March 9, 2018
We disqualified this violin as a scientific instrument in our Top 50 scientific artifacts of 2018 report, but it was definitely a catalyst for some important scientific thought. According to the Bonhams auction report, Einstein's second wife Elsa was quoted: "Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study."
Also according to the auction report, "Einstein rarely traveled without his violin and music was so important that he would arrange his schedule so that he could host a weekly Wednesday night chamber music session in his Princeton home." Full story
12 | $582,717 |
Exposition abregée du sisteme du monde selon les principes de Mr Neuton
by Émilie du Châtelet
Auction House: Artcurial | Sale price: €509,000
Official Estimate: €150,000 to €250,000 | Date of sale: November 19, 2018
French mathematician, physicist and author Madame la Marquise du Châtelet (1706 - 1749) was one of history's most accomplished, controversial and intriguing female scientists. She should be an inspiration to all those whose destiny is challenged by circumstance, as she played a crucial role in developing and propagating scientific thought, yet being female, she wasn't even allowed into the coffee shops where intellectuals gathered at the time.
This lot is the handwritten notes and manuscript from Émilie du Châtelet's translation of Isaac Newton's Principia, which was published as Exposition Abrégée Du Système Du Monde Selon Les Principes De Monsieur Newton, Incluse Dans Le Second Tome Des Principes Mathématiques De La Philosophie Naturelle D'Isaac Newton ("Abbreviated Exposition of the World System Under the Principles of Mr. Isaac Newton including the second volume of the mathematical principals of Natural Philosophy").
Her work (primarily this book but several other significant works) was instrumental in gaining Isaac Newton's theories widespread acceptance in Europe. Not only did she translate (into French) and revise Newton's most significant work, but based on the theories of Newton and Liebniz regarding the conservation of momentum, she proposed the law of conservation of energy, a staple of high school physics to this day.
This du Châtelet archive has been to auction previously, having fetched €961,000 (US$1,240,805) at a Christie's (Paris) auction in October, 2012.
11 | $607,179 | Unpublished Manuscript on the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and others by Bernardus Albingaunensis c.1512
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: £466,000
Official Estimate: £350,000 to £450,000 | Date of sale: November 13, 2018
An unpublished manuscript circa 1512 containing near contemporary accounts of the voyages of Christopher Columbus and other travelers from the great age of discovery, including the narrative of Michele de Cuneo, who accompanied Columbus's second voyage (1493–1494). Other contained accounts of voyages include those to the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the coasts of Africa, and the Indian ocean, by Alvise Da Mosto, Alonso Nino, the Pinzón brothers, Vasco de Gama, Pedro Cabral, Amerigo Vespucci, and others.
10 | $612,500 | NWA 11789 Lunar Meteorite
Auction House: RR Auctions | Sale price: US$612,500
Official Estimate: US$500,000 + | Date of sale: October 18, 2018
One of the largest lunar meteorites ever offered at auction, this massive rock was found in Northwest Africa in 2017 and is comprised of six segments, the largest weighing 2,939 grams and the total just shy of 5.5 kilograms. The average lunar meteorite is is a few hundred grams. Few of the world's top museums have a lunar meteorite of this size, and as an "unpaired" meteorite, it went to auction as one of the most important meteorites available in the world, hence the price it fetched.
9 | $613,214 |
by Galileo Galilei
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: £466,000
Official Estimate: £300,000 to £400,000 | Date of sale: September 19, 2018
The Difesa is a book by Galileo Galilei that essentially attacks a rival, Baldassare Capra, who had attempted to claim Galileo's compasso (an analogue calculator which Galileo manufactured and sold from 1595 to 1598) as his own.
The handbook for Galileo's compasso ('Le Operazioni Del Compasso Geometrico')is highly prized, with a copy selling in 2016 by Christie's for $320,350 (£242,500) and another (listed above) selling at the same auction as this for $213,769 (GBP £162,500).
The Difesa (from the auction description) "is mostly a presentation of his grievances against Capra and an account of the legal proceedings that ensued, which led to the seizure and destruction of all accessible copies of Capra's book."
Around 40 copies of this book by Galileo are known, and only ten of them have been to market in the last century, with the most recent copies having been sold for $230,500 in 2008, £242,500 in 2016, and a copy that was sold privately for £500,000 in 2005 and subsequently for £750,000 in 2011 to the Library of Congress.
8 | $647,769 | Autograph manuscript leaf from
Origin of the Species
by Charles Darwin
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: £490,000
Official Estimate: £120,000 to £180,000 | Date of sale: July 9, 2018
When On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published on November 24, 1859, the science of evolutionary biology was born, as was a significant new chapter in mankind's self-perception. The revelations of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Watson & Crick may have been equally as significant in the greater scheme of things, but in making us aware of our place in the evolutionary process, Charles Darwin's book had a far more profound and immediate impact on mankind and its beliefs.
Hence when two autograph leafs from the manuscript of this monumentally important book were heading to auction, we wondered if the official estimates weren't perhaps a little light at "£120,000 to £180,000" and "£70,000 to £100,000" respectively. Would the marketplace judge them in the same context that our editors and writers do? Could single scraps of paper command more than those figures. They did, fetching $647,769 (£490,000) and $362,222 (£274,000) respectively.
Recommended reading: Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought
7 | $699,606 |
Atlas maior, sive cosmographia blaviana
by Joan Blaeu
Auction House: Arenberg Auctions (no link) | Sale price: €600,000
Official Estimate: €250,000 to €350,000 | Date of sale: May 26, 2018
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.
6 | $765,430 | autograph manuscript of
Kitab tanqih al-manazir
by Kamal al-Din al-Hasan ibn (c. 1309)
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: £549,000
Official Estimate: £250,000 to £350,000 | Date of sale: April 25, 2018
This is an early autograph copy of the landmark Ali ibn al-Hasan al-Farisi, Kitab tanqih al-manazir li dhawi al-absar wa'l-basair ('The Book of Correction of Optics for those who have Sight and Mind') by Persian astronomer and mathematician Kamal al-Din al-Hasan ibn (1267– 1319). This work is (from the auction description): "of exceptional historical importance, drawing on the work of Ibn al-Haytham, and the earlier Greek scholars Euclid, Ptolemy, Aristotle and Galen. The present manuscript covers various elements of optics, the physics of the eye, as well as light, vision, reflection, refraction, and various theories related to mathematics and geometry. The workings of human sight are illustrated by a remarkable cross-sectional diagram, which to the best of our knowledge may be the earliest known illustration of the human eye."
5 | $766,752 | Stephen Hawking's PhD thesis
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: £584,750
Official Estimate: £100,000 to £150,000 | Date of sale: November 8, 2018
Following a 55-year battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018) passed away on March 14, 2018 (appropriately also International Pi Day and Albert Einstein's birthday).
This signed manuscript is one of only five copies known to exist of Hawking's PhD thesis and has a remarkable story behind it. During his first postgrad year at Cambridge in 1962, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS and given just two years to live, leading to him quitting his studies. When the diagnosis was modified to that of a slow-progressing form of the disease, he returned to Cambridge in 1963 and finished his thesis in 1965, going on to become one of the best recognized and most celebrated scientists in history.
In his introduction to the paper, Hawking writes: "The idea that the universe is expanding is of recent origin. All the early cosmologies were essentially stationary and even Einstein … found it natural to suggest a static model of the universe. However there is a very grave difficulty associated with a static model such as Einstein's …
"The early cosmologies naturally placed man at or near the centre of the universe, but, since the time of Copernicus we have been demoted to a medium sized planet going round a medium sized star somewhere near the edge of a fairly average galaxy. We are now so humble that we would not claim to occupy any special position …"
The thesis was made available online by Cambridge University in 2017, creating somewhat of an embarrassment as the thesis was viewed more than 60,000 times in the first 24 hours before the demand crashed the university's server.
By making his PhD thesis Open Access, anyone can now freely download and read this historic and compelling research by the then little-known 24-year-old Cambridge postgraduate.
Upon making the thesis public, Professor Hawking said: "By making my PhD thesis Open Access, I hope to inspire people around the world to look up at the stars and not down at their feet; to wonder about our place in the universe and to try and make sense of the cosmos. Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and enquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding.
"Each generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them, just as I did as a young PhD student in Cambridge, inspired by the work of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein. It's wonderful to hear how many people have already shown an interest in downloading my thesis – hopefully they won't be disappointed now that they finally have access to it!"
4 | $855,000 | Moon Rocks
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$855,000
Official Estimate: US$700,000 to $1,000,000 | Date of sale: November 29, 2018
Whilst there may be lunar meteorites available for purchase, there is only one set of lunar rocks collected from the moon by human intervention that has ever become publicly available - this set. The three lunar samples were brought to Earth in 1970 by the Soviet Luna-16 Mission, and were gifted to Mme. Nina Ivanovna Koroleva, widow of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1906–1966).
Sergei Korolev was the mastermind of the Soviet space program during the 1950s and 1960s, competing with NASA on a budget that was miniscule by comparison. Korolev oversaw the launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite (1957), the first human earth orbit by Yuri Gagarin in Vostok–1 (1961), the first controlled landing on the moon (1966), and the first craft to orbit the moon (1966). Full story
3 | $975,000 | Richard Feynman's 1965 Nobel Prize Medal in Physics
Auction House: Sotheby's | Sale price: US$975,000
Official Estimate: US$800,000 to $1,200,000 | Date of sale: November 30, 2018
This is the 1965 Nobel Prize awarded to Richard Feynman (jointly with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichiro Tomonaga) for their "fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles."
All three had independently different and ingenious ways to reconcile the electromagnetic field theory of the 19th century with the quantum mechanics of the 20th century.
While Tomonaga and Schwinger approached the problem using highly mathematical methods, Feynman tackled it in his own highly creative and original way; by creating his iconic Feynman Diagrams, innovative pictures that provided a clear visual explanation of every possible interaction between electrons and photons.
2 | $1,150,270 | An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
Official Estimate: £500,000 to £800,000 | Date of sale: December 12, 2018
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.
DNQ | $1,520,633 | George III Ormolu musical automaton table clock c. 1790
Disqualified from this listing on the grounds of a complete lack of scientific purpose, it was nonetheless a triumph of horological knowhow when it was created 230 years ago. Instead of just striking on the quarter hour, the clock contains a bell- and drum-playing automaton which plays a tune to denote the time musically.
DNQ | $2,892,500 |
The God Letter
by Albert Einstein
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: US$2,892,500
Official Estimate: US$1,000,000 to $1,500,000 | Date of sale: December 4, 2018
Albert Einstein is one of the most respected and admired human beings to have lived, and hence when a letter expanding upon his religious beliefs surfaced in 2008, it was bound to make headlines. The letter had been written in 1954 to German philosopher Eric Gutkind, in response to Gutkind's book, Choose Life: The biblical Call to Revolt.
The letter was first sold by the Gutkind family at Bloomsbury Auctions (now Dreweatts) in London on May 15, 2008 for $403,780 (£207,600). It again went to auction on eBay in October, 2012 where it was widely reported to have fetched $3,000,100 but the sale appears to have fallen through, because Christie's confirmed that the seller in 2018 was the buyer at the 2008 auction.
1 | $9,650,000 |
The Birds of America
by John James Audubon
Auction House: Christie's | Sale price: US$9,650,000
Official Estimate: US$8,000,000 to $12,000,000 | Date of sale: June 14, 2018
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. Audubon painted, cataloged, and described the birds of North America in their natural environments in this quite unique book and his name lives on through the American National Audubon Society, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservation.
Fewer than 200 sets of the original "elephant edition" (a reference to its size of 99 cm by 66 cm - yes, the book stands a meter tall) 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. Highly recommended.
There are nearly 100 recorded auction sales of bound volumes of Birds of America for prices in excess of $100,000 and eight auction sales in excess of US$3,000,000. Other than this sale, those prices for Birds of America include $11,570,496 (£7,321,250) by Sotheby's in December, 2010, $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.
Sadly, we're now starting to see books being dismembered and individual pages sold, and each year we see individual leafs from those books fetch remarkable prices. This year a Hooping Crane (Plate 226) fetched $266,500, Snowy Heron (Plate 242) fetched $292,800 and Great Blue Heron (Plate 211) fetched $353,800.
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.