An analysis of the world’s most valuable scientific documents and manuscripts, and it illustrates both how far science has come in a relatively short time, and how little we value our legacy in monetary terms
This is the second of a six-part series covering the most valuable scientific documents and manuscripts from #50 to #41. The introduction to the marketplace is the first part of the series and #40-31, #30-21, #20-11 and #10-1 will follow over consecutive days. Links to other parts of the series will be added here as they are published
50 – Autograph manuscript of Einstein’s first scientific essay
Price: US$676,369 (£344,000)
Estimate: £300,000 – £500,000
Created: circa 1894 – 1895
Auctioned: Christie’s (London), December, 2006
Significance: Einstein’s first scientific paper, written at 16 years of age (he is pictured above at 14), contains the seeds of the theory of relativity. It pursues an inquiry relating to the ether, the elastic substance which, according to the science of the day, filled all of space. It was Einstein’s continued interest in questions on the boundary between mechanics and electro-magnetics that provided the departure point for his 1905 special theory of relativity, which was to cause the final abandonment of the ether concept.
Some perspective on the price: Items to sell for a similar amount at auction include Marilyn Monroe’s baby grand piano ($662,500), Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz ($666,000), an Olympic Games Torch from the 1952 Helsinki games ($658,350), the jersey worn by American captain Mike Eruzione in the “The Miracle on Ice” Gold Medal Ice Hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympics ($657,250), a Babe Ruth New York Yankees jersey ($657,250), a pocket watch given to Babe Ruth by the New York Yankees ($650,108), plus original art from an Incredible Hulk comic book ($657,250) and original art from a Spider-Man comic book ($657,250).
49 – Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip, New South Wales
by William Hovell and Hamilton Hume
Price: $688,286 (AUD932,000)
Estimate: AUD750,000 – AUD850,000
Created: The overland exploration detailed in the book was undertaken in 1824 and 1825, the book was published in 1837, but this copy was one of a few printer’s proofs created in 1831.
Significance: The only unpublished proof copy in private hands of a landmark book about the exploration of Australia. Look closely at the map above (from a Sotheby’s auctioned copy of the second edition) and you’ll see that Port Phillip is the area upon which Australia’s second largest city, Melbourne, now sits. The auction copy was given to French navigator Louis de Freycinet (1779 – 1841), whose annotations to the text can be seen in the auction copy alongside those of its editor, convicted murderer and subsequently member of Parliament, Dr William Bland. Freycinet was the first person to publish a map showing the full coastline of Australia in 1811. The full text of the most expensive Australian book ever to sell at auction has been digitized and is available for free online via Project Gutenberg.
The world’s most expensive movie poster sold for $690,000
Some perspective on price: In terms of items that have sold for a similar amount at auction, the world’s most expensive movie poster sold for $690,000 at a Reel Galleries auction in November, 2005. The poster is one of just four surviving from the epic 153–minute 1927 silent movie classic Metropolis, the story of a dystopian future set in the year 2000 and one of the first feature films to pioneer the science fiction genre. German artist Heinz Schulz-Neudamm (1899-1969) created the poster, the novel and screenplay were written by Thea Von Harbou (1888-1954), and the film was directed by Thea’s husband, Fritz Lang (1890-1976). You can watch the trailer for the remastered original movie here.
Price: $743,687 (£458,500)
Estimate: £180,000 — £240,000
Created: The copy that achieved this price was of three volumes bound as two, dated 1598, 1599 and 1600 respectively. This copy is the first issue of the second edition with Volume One dated 1598. The first edition was published in 1589, with this copy of the second edition greatly expanded and including the very rare Wright-Molyneux world map.
Auctioned: Sotheby’s (London), September, 2014
Significance: Though Richard Hakluyt (1553 – 1616) never traveled further from England than France to assemble this work, he met or corresponded with many of the great explorers, navigators and cartographers, including Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Martin Frobisher, Abraham Ortelius and Gerardus Mercator. In addition to long and significant descriptions of the Americas, this work also contains accounts of Russia, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, Turkey, Middle East, Persia, India, South-East Asia and Africa. This copy includes an account of “the famous victorie atchieved at the citie of Cadiz” (by Sir Francis Drake), which was ordered to be suppressed in 1599, and therefore is sometimes missing in copies of this work.
The Wright-Molyneux map is based on Mercator’s projection, which Mercator expected would be a valuable tool to navigators, and this map was one of the first to use it. Unfortunately, Mercator gave no explanation as to the underlying mathematics used to create the map and it was left to Edward Wright to explain it in Certain Errors in Navigation Detected and Corrected (1599), hence the projection sometimes being called the Wright Projection by English mapmakers. The map is linked to Emery Molyneux, whose globe of 1592 provided most of the geographical information it contains. Hakluyt’s use of this map in his publication was to show “so much of the world as hath beene hetherto discouered, and is comme to our knowledge.” Wright later translated John Napier‘s pioneering 1614 work that introduced the idea of logarithms from Latin into English.
Some perspective on price: Two fascinating scientific instruments have also sold in this price range, being a Gilt and Brass Astronomical Table Clock (above left) made in Augsburg (Germany) circa 1560 – 70, which sold for $725,000 at a Christies (New York) auction in January, 2015, and a brass Astrolabe made by Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Battûtî in Morocco, circa 1757, which sold for £421,250 ($729,021) at a Sotheby’s (London) auction in October, 2008.
47 – Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain Xaintongeois
by Samuel de Champlain
Estimate: $250,000 – $350,000
Significance: The renowned Siebert copy of this first edition landmark of French Americana and New World exploration, a pioneering work in ethnography and the first accurate mapping of the New England coast. One of the finest copies of this work extant, it previously sold in May, 1999 at a Sotheby’s New York auction for $360,000.
From the auction description: One of the most important works of the 17th century, remarkable in its content and execution, being the work of one man – a gifted naturalist, an artist (trained as a portrait painter in France), a skilled cartographer and sympathetic ethnographer. Samuel de Champlain’s account of his voyages of 1604, 1610, 1611 and 1613 are a key exploration narrative, one considerably enhanced by the author’s lively illustrations in which he records his mapping of a vast area with unprecedented detail and accuracy, while also depicting the flora and fauna of the New World. The vignettes within the rare Carte Geographique de la Nouvelle Franse are an artist’s rendition of new species, giving a hint of the varied and vast natural resources to be found in the New World. Of this monumental cartographic endeavor, Armstrong called the map, “not the work of a bureaucrat, but of a skillful pyschologist, promoter and politician…Champlain’s map of 1612 is the most important historical cartography of Canada.”
Some perspective on price: Interestingly, several other items of historical significance to the United States have sold for a similar amount at auction. These include a 1777 manuscript map of New York Island from the American Revolutionary War (above) that fetched $782,500, the original autograph manuscript by Julia Ward Howe of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that also fetched $782,500, W.I. Stone’s 1823 “50th Anniversary” engraving of the ‘Declaration of Independence’ that also sold for $782,500, and a draft manuscript of the United Kingdom’s Stamp Act of 1765 (an effort to heavily tax the colonies and a catalyst for the American Revolution), that sold for $755,000.
46 – The Decades of the Newe Worlde
by Pietro Martire d’Anghiera
Estimate: $80,000 – $120,000
Created: Published 1555 but translated from works in other languages produced over the previous 75 years.
Auctioned: Christie’s (New York), April, 2007
Significance: The full title of this book is The Decades of the newe worlde or west India, Conteyning the nauigations and conquestes of the Spanyardes, with the particular description of the moste ryche and large landes and Ilandes lately founde in the west Ocean perteynyng to the inheritance of the kinges of Spayne.
It is the first series of narratives on epic voyages voyages based on the first three Decades of Peter Martyr (Pietro Martire d’Anghiera – read the text in English here), which were originally written in Latin between 1511 and 1530. The book was edited and translated into English by Richard Eden and published in London by William Powell in 1555. The auctioned book sold for almost 10 times its estimate, mainly due to its significance as the first edition of the first collection of voyages printed in English, and the first work to contain narratives of English voyages.
Besides the three Decades of Peter Martyre, it contains a translation of that author’s “De nuper sub D. Carolo repertis Insulis” (describing the voyages of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, Juan de Grijalva, and Hernán Cortés), the Bull of Pope Alexander (by which he decreed that the world was to be divided between Spain and Portugal), as well as translations of the most important parts of the works pertaining to the maritime discovery of the New World by Oviedo, Maximilian of Transylvania, Vespuccius, Gomara and others.
This book is quite a compendium of important work, as it also contains the first printed English treatise on the compass, the first description of “What degrees are,” and “A demonstration of the roundness of the Earth.”
In the book’s preface, the colonization of North America by the English is advocated for the first time and according to The art of navigation in England in Elizabethan and early Stuart times, “for over a quarter of a century it proved to be the English source-book of geographical and navigational knowledge” and “as such it was to be of the utmost value to men like Hawkins and Drake.”
Emphasizing this last point is the book’s provenance – this book was Roger North‘s copy. In 1617, North had sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh in his second expedition to Guiana in South America in search of the mythical “city of gold” known as El Dorado, and in 1620, North was a prime mover behind attempts to establish an English colony on the River Amazon delta. The book bears his signature on the title as well as his motto, “Durum Pati,” believed to be an abbreviation of Horace’s “Durum, sed levius fit patientia…” (‘Tis hard! But that which we are not permitted to correct is rendered lighter by patience). The book is available in full on the Internet Archive.
Some perspective on price: The baseball hit by Barry Bonds for career home run #756, (breaking the all-time home run record for the American MLB), sold for $752,467 at an SCP auction in 2007.
45 – The Atlantic Neptune published for the use of the Royal Navy of Great Britain by Joseph Des Barres
Estimate: $400,000 – $600,000
Auctioned: Christie’s (New York), April, 2007
Significance: Swiss cartographer Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres (1722-1824) was a member of the famous Huguenot family who studied mathematics under Daniel Bernoulli at the University of Basel, then military surveying at Great Britain’s Royal Military Academy, leading to a commission in 1756 into the Royal Americans and a role as a cartographer in the Seven Years’ War. Using documents captured at Louisbourg, Des Barres compiled a large-scale chart of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf, which enabled the British Navy to navigate its warships to and take control of the French capital at Quebec. The victory demonstrated the benefits of accurate marine surveys, and Des Barres’ capability in particular, resulting in the admiralty providing him with the resources to accurately chart the coast of Atlantic Canada, and the eastern seaboard from New England to the West Indies. This book resulted some 17 years later: a maritime atlas that set the standard for nautical charting for half a century.
Some perspective on price: Several copies of this work have achieved similar high figures, and it is clear that both mariners and historians considered it to be “the most splendid collection of charts, plans and views ever published.”
44 – Atlas Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Mundi Et Fabricati Figura by Gerard Mercator
Price: $783,346 (£422,400)
Estimate: £60,000 — £80,000
Auctioned: Sotheby’s (London), October, 2006
Significance: The first atlas to be so called. The first four parts had been published between 1585 and 1589 (see previous lot). To these were added a fifth and final part, Atlantis pars altera, published in 1595, a year after Mercator’s death, and overseen by his son Rumold. This part includes maps of the world and the continents. The complete atlas was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and the whole was preceded by the famous engraved general title-page showing Atlas measuring the world with a pair of dividers. Interestingly, Mercator refers to Atlas, King of Mauretania (now Morocco), a mathematician and philosopher who is generally credited with having made the first celestial globe, not the mythical Greek god Atlas, whose punishment was to carry the world and heavens on his shoulders. We humans certainly have a propensity to get our stories mixed up.
43 – Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America
by John James Audubon
Estimate: $600,000 – $700,000
Created: 1845 – 1854
Auctioned: Guernsey’s (New York), December, 2012
Significance: The most expensive of numerous copies of John James Audubon’s second masterpiece. “Viviparous” means birthing young from within the body, so this book is essentially a study of North American mammalian wildlife, and like Audubon’s best known “Birds of America,” each 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. 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.
42 – Globus Mundi
Price: $837,227 (€600,000)
Auctioned: Alde (Paris), February, 2010
Significance: “Globus Mundi” does not list an author, but is considered so valuable because it is the first book on cosmography to officially use the term America as the common name to describe the “New World.” It was published in Strasbourg (Germany) in 1509 by Johann Grüninger.
Some perspective on price: An astrolabe made for the Duke of Parma by Erasmus Habermel sold for $841,070 (£540,500) at a Christies (London) auction in October, 1995.
41 – Aves Ad Vivum Depictae A Petro Holysten Celeberrimo Picture by Pieter Holsteyn the Younger
Estimate: $300,000 – $500,000
Created: circa 1638
Auctioned: Sotheby’s (New York), December, 2015
Significance: Pieter Holsteyn II (1614 – 1673) worked closely with his father, Pieter Holsteyn the Elder, in producing fine gouaches and watercolor natural history portraits and botanicals and grew to become one of the Dutch Golden Age watercolor masters. His particular skill was the delicate, but detailed depiction of many of the new and exotic species being returned to Amsterdam from the voyages of the Dutch East India Company. This particular book is extremely rare as most of the natural history albums produced in the 17th century have long since been broken apart and the images sold piecemeal. The book is renowned for its famous illustration of the now extinct White Dodo.
Some perspective on price: A similar collection is for sale at Arader Galleries in New York at a price of $4.5 million.
Continue reading in the third part of the series, numbers 40-31.
MORE TO COME