Original 300-year-old Fahrenheit thermometer drops in value at auction
Someone has scored a bargain at Heritage Auctions’ recent Historical Platinum Session Signature Auction and we’re quite astonished that in this age of information, such anomalies can still happen. On July 16, an extremely rare and historically important thermometer made by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, inventor of the mercury thermometer and the temperature scale that bears his name, sold for just US$93,750.
The 300-year-old thermometer had been unknown by the scientific community until 2012 when a collector consigned it to a Christie’s auction, creating news across the globe, as it was (and remains) only the third thermometer made by Daniel Fahrenheit that is still known to exist today. The other two known Fahrenheit thermometers are owned by Museum Boerhaave, in Leiden, the Netherlands.
At the time of that sale, Christie’s Scientific Specialist, James Hyslop, commented, “it is very exciting to be able to offer at auction such an incredibly important scientific instrument, and one which collectors would never have believed would come to market. Inscribed on the back by Fahrenheit himself, this is an exceptional piece which has no precedent, and which I expect to cause a real buzz with connoisseurs and institutions on every continent around the globe.”
In 2012, the thermometer sold at Christie’s for £67,250 (US$107,620), and despite achieving top price at the auction, it had been expected to sell for up to £100,000 (US$120,800).
On the day, it outsold a three-rotor German WW2 Enigma electronic ciphering machine which fetched £58,850 (US$94,176). The world record for an Enigma machine was £133,250 (US$208,150) at that time. Since then, prices for Enigma machines have quadrupled, mainly thanks to the release of The Imitation Game, a 2014 movie about Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, cryptography and the Enigma Machine. Today that Enigma machine would be worth $400,000+, while the Fahrenheit thermometer decreased in price from $107,620 in 2012 to $93,750 in 2022.
The invention of thermometer was one of the most important events in scientific history, as it enabled mankind to measure temperature accurately for the first time, at the same time as revolutionizing medical science forever.
At a time when seemingly every major auction genre, from art to watches to cars to comic books and baseball cards are smashing records, a 300-year-old artifact of one of the fundamental scientific discoveries in history fell in price.
It would once more seem that historical gravitas is no longer a factor in framing the prices of scientific instruments that helped to change history and create the world we now know.
Another press release came from America's largest auction house today, announcing the online sale of a baseball card that is expected to break the $10-million barrier over the next month.
Such is life!