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The price of old science

Rare scientific books go for millions of dollars in US auction

Photos Christie’sCopernicus’s books, sold for US$2.2 million: unavailable in the market for decadesPhotos Christie’s

Science was put under the hammer and, surprisingly, went for almost twice the price experts had forecast. In this case, for “science”, read 346 books or collections of articles by scientists who created or revolutionized scientific knowledge from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Almost all the lots were sold on June 17 at  Christie’s auction house in New York. The crown jewel was a book that has been unavailable in the market for many decades, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [On the revolutions of heavenly spheres], by the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), prudently published in the year of his death, after two decades of work. In this work, for the first time ever, Copernicus replaced the Earth by the Sun as the center of the Solar system. The copy is a first edition from the sixteenth century and was part of a library of science history belonging to Richard Green, a retired American physician, amateur astronomer and dilettante collector. Christie’s had expected to get as much as US$1.1 million for the book, but it went for a record US$2.2 million. The auction’s total proceeds,  US$ 11 million for 289 lots sold, far outdid the initial estimate of US$6 million.

Christie’s Works by Medina…Christie’s

Arte de navegar [The Art of Navigation] by a Spaniard, Pedro de Medina (1493-1567), was the second most valuable book at the auction, having gone for US$578 thousand. It was a first edition of the first practical navigation manual. The third most expensive lot (US$506 thousand) was a small work by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Le operazioni del compasso geometrico et militare, in which he described how a compass could be used with no pen, paper or abacus. Then came Harmonices mundi libri V (US$ 362 mil), by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), in which he explains his theory about the harmony of the Universe. And the fifth most expensive lot (US$314 thousand) out of the 289 sold was a collection of 130 separate pieces by Albert Einstein (1879-1955), written between 1900 and 1926, which included articles on the quantum theory of fields, the general theory of relativity and the unified theory of fields.

Christie’s …Kepler…Christie’s

Why would anyone spend so much money on a well-known item, reproduced hundreds of years ago, except for the work’s historical value? Perhaps a fetish for first editions that only very few people have? Or as an investment in something that will hold its value? When it comes to people known to be passionate about antiquarian editions, such as bibliophile José Mindlin, the answer comes more easily. He does not bid at millionaire auctions and has been collecting his books with a great deal of patience over many decades. Those who have visited his library are aware of the care with which all the books are handled, from the most valuable to the most modest ones.

Christie’s …and Einstein’s equations: now in the hands of museums and corporationsChristie’s

But this is not the case of the current buyers of rare books and works of art. The appraiser Margarete Cardoso, from the Rio Antigo bookstore in Rio de Janeiro and an expert on the rare books market in Brazil, tells us that these works will tend to become increasingly rare because they are purchased by museums and companies (the fate of most of Richard Green’s books), which do not resell them. “When books such as those auctioned off appear, the price rockets”, says Margarete.