It has been an interesting few weeks with some remarkable artifacts of scientific and cultural history crossing the auction block. In our new regular round-up of this space we look at the upcoming auction of a first edition of Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica and an incomplete set of the The North American Indian. Some spectacular items sold in the last few weeks, including the autograph manuscript of Mahler's Second Symphony ($5.7 million), Napoleon's Description de l'Égypte ($398,000), a Honus Wagner T206 baseball card ($3.12 million), a 4000 year-old toy boat ($201,000), a single page of original Tin-Tin comic artwork ($1.6 million) and one of Alexander Fleming's penicillin cultures ($46,250).
Here's our pick of the news this week:
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica
A first edition of the most important science book in history goes to auction on December 14 at Christies. It's one of the original first printing of just 300-400 copies in Latin. Only one other copy of Newton's Principia bound in contemporary morocco has sold at auction in the past 47 years, being the presentation copy to King James II, which was sold by Christie's (New York) in December 2013 for $2,517,000 (see also The most valuable scientific documents of all-time #20-11). This copy is estimated to fetch between $1 million and $1.5 million, but that record is within reach. Of the original indeterminate number of copies printed, roughly 150 copies are known to still exist of the foundation work of modern science.
The North American Indian
The North American Indian was produced in 40 volumes between 1907 and 1930 by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) and was one of the most expensive undertakings in the history of book production and the most comprehensive ethnographic records of any aboriginal people. According to author and critic A.D. Coleman, it is "an absolutely unmatched masterpiece of visual anthropology, and one of the most thorough, extensive and profound photograph works of all time."
Going to auction with Drewaatts Bloomsbury in London on 15 December, 2016 is this incomplete set of The North American Indian that was once the subscription copy of American industrialist Sir William Northrup McMillan (1872-1925). McMillan was a close friend and hunting partner of Teddy Roosevelt, hosting Roosevelt both during the former president's riotous 1909 safari and thereafter. One may confidently assume that the McMillan subscription expired with Sir William's death: in short, the set offered for sale today was never complete. Roosevelt was also a friend and confidant of Edward S Curtis and his support was crucial in having this master work completed. The world record price for a complete set of The North American Indian is $2,882,500, set by Christie's (New York), in April, 2012. This incomplete set is expected to fetch between £60,000 and £80,000 (see also The most valuable scientific documents of all-time #10-1).
The French Army's Description de l'Égypte
The Description de l'Égypte (full title: Description De L'Egypte Ou Recueil Des Observations Et Des Recherches Qui Ont Été Faites En Egypte Pendant L'expédition De L'Armée Française) was a series of publications, begun in 1809 and continuing until 1830, which offered a comprehensive scientific description of ancient and modern Egypt from its antiquities to its agriculture including language, music, costume, and natural history, and it concludes with a detailed and accurate map of the region. The numerous plates depicting the antiquities provide a comprehensive record of the richness of ancient Egyptian culture.
The Description de l'Égypte was the largest printed work ever produced and is highly sought-after, with the world record of $2,882,500 being achieved by Christie's (New York) in April, 2012 (see also The most valuable scientific documents of all-time #10-1). This magnificent work fetched £320,750 ($398,410).
4000 year-old model boat fetches £161,000 ($201,014)
A large wooden model boat from the Egyptian Middle Period 2123-1797 B.C, sold for £161,000 ($201,014) at Bonhams Antiquities Sale in London on 30 November, 2016. Boats were an integral part of Egyptian everyday life and mythology and as such they were considered necessary in the afterlife. Usually two model boats were provided for each tomb, one showing the crew sailing south with the prevailing wind and the other with the crew rowing north. This boat was originally bought by a British army officer in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century and passed by descent to the Scottish private collection from which it was consigned for sale at this auction.
Bonhams "History of Science" sale report
Bonhams History of Science sale was held in London last week, and Christies Valuable Books & Manuscripts sale was held in New York. We picked out a few good affordable long-term investments at the Bonhams sale, and the lots had quite a mixed response. The 18th Century Portable Orrery (estimated at $8,000 to $12,000) sold for $10,000, the 1731 Richard Cushee pocket globe sold for $7500 on an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000.
The George Adams brass universal equinoctial ring dial (circa 1760) sold for $1,625 on an estimate of $2,500 to $3,500, the Soviet Cold War (circa 1970) Wearable Filin Intercept Receiver failed to sell, a first edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species sold for US$ 25,000, Thomas Nicol's 1659 Lapidary (The History of Precious Stones: With Cautions for the Undeceiving of all Those That Deal with Precious Stones) sold for $2000 and the 1936 Baird Mirror-Lid Type 23 Televisor Television failed to sell.
As we suggested, the James Watson autographed diagram of the DNA molecule fetched more than it's $1000 estimate, selling for $7,500, while the Crick & Watson paper sold for $11,250 against an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000.
Comic books surging in value
Collectible comic sales are as strong as ever, but the last two years has seen a huge jump in the prices of original Tin-Tin comic art by Belgian George Herge, with several big comic sales last week including the sale by Artcurial of an original page of artwork from the 1954 album, On a marché sur la Lune. The single page sold for €1,553,312 ($1,646,503), roughly double the estimate of €700,000 to €900,000). In the same week, Christies sold another full page artwork from the same album which fetched €602,500 ($638,650).
Superman continues to rule the roost in terms of collectible comic books, with a sale this week of the first Superman-specific comic (Superman #1), which was published in 1939, a year after the his first appearance in Action Comics #1, the comic that kicked away the superhero genre. The record for a single comic book at auction is held by Action Comics #1 at $3,207,852 which sold on eBay in 2014. This copy of Superman #1, despite a grading of 4.5, sold for $358,500 on 18 November at Heritage Auctions.
John Russell's extraordinary hand-drawn Lunar Cartography
Beginning in 1764, John Russell sketched the moon's surface in intricate detail from his observations with the telescope. These sketches evolved into highly detailed maps of the lunar surface, one of which can be seen at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. In 1797 he published the earliest extant lunar globe.
In 1805 the lunar planisphere showing the Moon in flat was published, followed in 1806 by an alternative view of the Moon lit obliquely. It is these two extraordinary works which sold for £125,000 ($157,408) at Christies in New York on December 1.
The Moon in flat light "is clearly far more detailed that any of its predecessors, and the very complex interplay of delicate shadings reveal the hand of a master artist. Indeed, the highly detailed nature and general accuracy of this image have never been surpassed." (Whitaker, 1999). Both plates would be included in a posthumous publication by his son: A description of the lunar planispheres / engraved by the late J.R. from his original drawing (London : W. Russell 1809). It has been commented that his "drawings are more detailed than anything before and, as 'eye to telescope' maps of the moon, they have never been equalled." (Whitehouse, 2001)
Baseball card market reaches new highs
The baseball card marketplace continues to grow, as evidenced by the first sale of a card for more than $3 million at Goldin Auctions. Honus Wagner was a very good baseball player but his name lives on a century later because he stopped the publication of a baseball car promoting cigarettes that had been printed without his permission. The cull of the printed cards left just 72 known specimens and this is what happens when the laws of supply and demand find equilibrium with a scarce commodity in a large and growing marketplace. Various copies of those 72 Honus Wagner cards hold all of the top ten places in the most expensive baseball card ever sold and only seven scientific manuscripts in history have sold for more than this card, which fetched a record $3.12 million.
Mahler Manuscript sells for $5.7 million
Autograph manuscripts of great musical compositions are rare, and the auction description claims this to be "the greatest autograph manuscript to be offered at auction for nearly thirty years." The only comparable autograph manuscripts to have been sold at auction are those of the nine Mozart symphonies written before his 20th birthday (Sotheby's London for $4.34 million in 1987) and Schumann's Second Symphony (Sotheby's London for $2.35 million in 1994). Sotheby's London sold the Mahler manuscript on 29 November, 2016 for £4,546,250 ($5,681,229).
The same sale in London also saw a previously unknown working draft autograph manuscript of the opening of Chopin's First Ballade in G Minor fetch £200,000 ($250,000).
An original Alexander Fleming Penicillin Mold Culture
"When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did."
So said Alexander Fleming, and this original Fleming penicillin mold culture represents an authentic artifact of one of the most significant discoveries in the history of medicine.
Fleming had left a stack of staph cultures in his study next to an open window where they were contaminated by an airborne mold during his holiday. Before disposing of the cultures, he noticed that the mold had prevented normal growth by the staph. Fleming's incredible discovery was somewhat neglected until it was taken up by Howard Florey and his assistant Ernst Chain in 1938, barely in time for World War II. By the end of the War, vast quantities of penicillin were produced every month saving untold millions of lives.
In 1945, Fleming, Florey and Chain were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Bonhams sold this otherwise modest original Fleming penicillin mold culture for $46,250 on 7 December, 2016 in New York.
Another Einstein manuscript breaks $100,000
We've written lots about the power of Albert Einstein on the auction block and as one of the top five dead celebrity earners, and his personal brand is up there with Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, John Lennon and Michael Jackson as a multiplier of value and he's the most prominent (indeed, the only) scientist to appear in our auctions research. Bonhams sold a first edition monograph issue of the General Theory of Relativity on December 7, 2016 for $125,000. The paper contains an important note by Einstein grappling with Unified Field Theory and the title-page is signed by Einstein in the upper left and inscribed by him below his printed name and dated 1938. Halsted Vander Poel purchased this signed offprint at auction as a young man and shortly thereafter must have asked Einstein to inscribe the book during one of his New York visits. Fortune favors the bold, and Vander Poel acquired a truly landmark item when he asked for the inscription.
The Enigma Machine
One of the rarest surviving Enigma cipher machines has sold at auction for a record price of US$463,500. An artifact of one of the most exciting episodes of World War II, the fully operational Enigma M4 was made in 1943 for Admiral Doneitz's Kriegsmarine to send secret messages to the German U-boat packs at the height of the war. It was part of the Bonhams History of Science and Technology Sale in New York City and easily surpassed the previous record of US$350,000 set in 2015 (full story).
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more