Late in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, an Observer correspondent noticed a trend: texts by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and other big names in science were routinely surpassing auction estimates.
“The very rich might be snapping up iconic math and science texts in order to search for novel answers about the world’s current diseased state,” she posited. “When the present is offering no answers, one solution is to look to the past.”
It’s a fine theory but one that ignores the fact that the great scientific works of history by the greatest scientific minds have always commanded hefty sums at auction. Sotheby’s London sold an edition of Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmographia—the world’s first printed atlas, drafted in 150 CE and published in 1477—for about $4 million in 2006. In 2013, a letter illustrated with a diagram of the DNA double-helix molecule penned by biophysicist Francis Crick to his son in 1953 sold for $6 million at Christie’s. In 2016, a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica sold at auction for $3.7 million, becoming the most expensive printed scientific book.
Five copies of the 120 copies of The Birds of America by John James Audubon dominate lists of the most expensive tomes. In 2000, Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar purchased a copy at auction for $8.8 million. Five years later, Christie’s sold an unbound copy for $5.6 million. Other copies of the work have fetched between $9 million and $12 million at auction.
Topping them all is the Codex Leicester, named after Thomas Coke, which contains a selection of scientific writings—primarily on
When it comes to enduring auction success, however, you can’t beat Albert Einstein. When his memorabilia hits the block, there’s always plenty of buzz and the bids come in hot. A single postcard from Einstein’s twelve-day visit to pre-state Israel in 1923 (sent with a brief note to Authur Ruppin) sold at Boston’s RR Auction for more than $56,000 in 2015. Two years later, the celebrity scientist’s Theory of Happiness—written for the bellboy who delivered the telegraph notifying him of his 1922 Nobel prize nomination—was auctioned for $1.5 million at Winner’s Auctions and Exhibitions in Jerusalem.
For the curious, Einstein wrote: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” On a second sheet of hotel stationery, which sold for $250,000, he added, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Among the scientist’s effects that have gone on the block over the years, there are of course the many technical letters he exchanged with fellow scientists and thoughtful notes addressed to public figures—including one he sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that discussed how fission chain reactions might be used to create “extremely powerful bombs” and ultimately prompted the United States to develop an atomic weapon.
There are also his scientific notes and manuscripts, which routinely sell for millions. Fifty-four pages of handwritten notes drafted in collaboration with Swiss engineer Michele Besso outlining the concepts that would become the foundation of the theory of general relativity fetched a record-breaking $13 million at a Christie’s Paris auction in 2021.
But the world’s hunger for Einstein memorabilia transcends the science—perhaps because personal relics offer us a glimpse of Einstein the man versus Einstein the genius. Christie’s 2020 Eureka! Scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century sale included, in addition to densely scientific correspondence, a short letter from Albert Einstein thanking a Herr Einstein for an “elegant little pipe” (‘das elegante Pfeifchen’). An original print of the iconic photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out, signed by the man himself, sold for $125,000 in 2017. Buyers have snapped up his pipe, his pocket watch, his telescope and his brown leather jacket. One of Einstein’s many violins (all nicknamed “Lina”) prompted a bidding war at Bonhams.
Perhaps this tendency to treat everyday objects associated with Einstein as relics is a way of attempting to bridge what can seem like an unbridgeable intellectual gap—something the scientist was also interested in doing, as evidenced by an Einstein manuscript going up for auction at Christie’s in Shanghai on September 23 as part of its 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale at the Waldorf Astoria.
The fourteen-page document is a draft, written in German, of an article that was published as a special supplement in the New York Times (his favorite newspaper, according to the auction house) in February of 1929. Einstein was, at the time, the most famous scientist in the world, and the publication asked him to explain his evolving ‘unified field theory,’ which had generated buzzy interest around the globe along with a great deal of head scratching among laypeople.
The resulting explanation, which in the draft included a diagram illustrating the structure of the spacetime continuum and two pages of scientific formulas, was a dense read requiring a separate glossary. Headlined “Einstein Explains His New Discoveries,” the article concludes with this audacious claim: “the answer that I have attempted to give in a new paper yields unitary field laws for gravitation and electro-magnetism.” But Einstein soon realized his search for a universal framework that would encompass the known fundamental forces of nature wasn’t over, and he’d spend the rest of his life in pursuit of a classical (i.e., non-quantum) unified field theory.
The manuscript has a high estimate of $1.4 million and will likely sell for more if past Albert Einstein auction results are any indication. But perhaps this particular sale will outperform expectations not just because the world is still in thrall of the late scientist but also because the yellowing pages of artfully looping handwriting going on the block offer up a picture of Einstein that melds genius and man.
“More than 20 percent of Einstein’s original papers contain mistakes of some sort,” writes Mario Livio in Brilliant Blunders, though the writer admits those errors seldom invalidated the scientist’s big-picture ideas. But Einstein never did unify general relativity and electromagnetism and some argue that he spent the later years of his life on a fruitless pursuit, given his rejection of quantum mechanics. It may be the world stood in awe of and continues to revere him above other scientists because he was both so very brilliant and so obviously very human.