Chronology : 16th century 1500-1519 1540-1569 1680-1699
second half 10th century The Archimedes Palimpsest
1998 SOLD for $ 2.2M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
Sometimes the deleted text reappears after several centuries because its ink has permeated the parchment. The original writing of a palimpsest on vellum which was kept in a religious library in Constantinople is correctly identified in 1906 as a scientific treatise by Archimedes.
The upper manuscript is a liturgical work in Greek copied in the 12th century. The scribe has carefully reused the leaves from a thick codex on which he has written his text at 90° to the original text before folding each page into a bifolium for a total of 177 sheets 20 x 15 cm.
The photo below gives the example of an unfolded bifolium on which the two writings are perfectly visible at 90° to each other. The copyright of this image shared by Wikimedia is held by the Walters Museum of Baltimore with a reference to their site dedicated to the palimpsest.
The Archimedes palimpsest resurfaced in 1996 in fairly poor condition, with three missing pages and four pages made illegible by modern illustrations. It was sold for $ 2.2M including premium by Christie's on October 29, 1998, lot 1.
The original texts were studied in detail before the sale, and still more since the sale with the most modern imagery techniques by a team from the Walters Art Museum where the new owner deposited the book.
Written in Greek most probably in Constantinople in the second half of the 10th century, they consist of seven scientific treatises by Archimedes, two of which were previously unknown, plus a few pages from an antique Greek orator.
The previously unpublished texts provide a new and incomparable vision on the scientific method of Archimedes, specifically when he compares volumes and surfaces, constituting didactic puzzles which anticipate by nearly two millennia the modern methods of analysis.
1020 An Astrolabe made in Cordoba
2017 SOLD for £ 610K including premium
The astrolabe was described for the first time around 550 in Alexandria but its improvement is essentially the work of the Muslim astronomers. In the tenth century of our calendar an enthusiastic theorist listed about 1000 different uses of this truly universal instrument, in the etymological meaning of 'universal'.
The use of the astrolabe extends of course to all the Muslim world as far as Spain, but the most advanced theoretical and practical treatises remain the work of the astronomers of the Middle East.
The ibn al-Saffar brothers worked in Cordoba at the beginning of the 5th century of the Hegira. Ahmed is a very important teacher whose writings will be used for four centuries. Muhammad makes the instruments.
Three astrolabes signed by Muhammad ibn al-Saffar are known. The earliest, dated 411AH corresponding to 1020/1021 in our calendar, is estimated £ 300K for sale by Sotheby's in London on April 26, lot 170. It is a big piece 19 cm overall including the suspension loop.
This astrolabe is complete but not entirely original, for a valid reason. Indeed the rete which simulates the map of the sky becomes obsolete after a few decades due to the precession of the equinoxes. The ancient users were aware of this phenomenon and the rete of this instrument was changed in Ottoman Turkey. The position of one of its star pointers suggests a date around 1550 of our calendar for this replacement part.
The mater is the rear side of the instrument. This one is set to the 66° latitude corresponding to the longest day time known by the astronomers in the Antiquity. Six original double-sided removable plates are joined with the indication of latitudes and cities, inviting for a fabulous journey into the medieval Muslim world. From South to North : Yemen, Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Qairawan, Damascus, Malaga, Cordoba, Toledo, Zaragoza.
The link in Sotheby's tweet below leads to photos of this instrument after disassembly to explain the mater, the loop, the plates, the alidade or sight rule and the rede.
1476 The Old Story of the Animals
2016 SOLD for $ 940K including premium
All types of knowledge are now welcomed. In animal biology, the three books of Aristotle make the reference. Famous as a philosopher and as tutor of Alexander, Aristotle was also along with Euclid, Ptolemy and Hippocrates one of the best scientific compilers of antiquity. In three successive books, he provides the name and description of 500 terrestrial and marine animals and describes the mechanisms of reproduction and embryology.
Nicholas V commissioned to Theodorus Gaza a new Latin translation of the De animalibus grouping these three books of Aristotle. It is significant that Theodorus also translated the Botany by Theophrastus.
Twenty years later, Venice specializes in the printing of deluxe books with a superb typographical clarity developed by Jenson and the use of great papers that may compete with the illuminated manuscripts.
The princeps edition of the complete translation of the De animalibus by Theodorus is organized in Venice in 1476. The publisher is Ludovico Prodocator and the printers are Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen de Gheretzem.
Two copies on vellum are known. One of them was acquired in 1784 by the French Royal Library, later Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
The other copy resurfaced a few months ago in Tennessee. A previous provenance was unambiguously re-established through its binding adorned with the coat of arms of a collector in the early nineteenth century. It is a great example of the extreme care applied to books in Venice just two decades after the invention of printing. The book is not illustrated but the initials are illuminated.
This only example on vellum in private hands is estimated $ 300K for sale by Bonhams in New York on June 8, lot 1.
The first Italian edition of the Natural History by Pliny was printed in the same year in Venice by Jenson. A copy was sold for € 195K before fees by Reiss on 1 November 2011.
1502 The Logic of the Merchants
2019 SOLD for $ 1.21M including premium
In the best tradition of the antique and Arabic science which includes for example Euclid, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Avicenna, Pacioli is a compiler. He relies among other sources on the Liber Abaci prepared in 1202 by Fibonacci, which demonstrated that the Indo-Arabic numbering system is much better than the Roman numerals.
Pacioli does not omit anything about arithmetic and its applications. He promotes the double entry bookkeeping already practiced by some merchants, separating the recordings of debit and credit. He illustrates the position of fingers to identify high numbers in the decimal system. He defines the perfect proportions in the arrangements of elementary geometrical figures.
His book titled Somma di arithmetica, geometria, proporzioni e proporzionalita, published in Venice in 1494, is the first arithmetic treatise in the vernacular. Of middle class origin, Pacioli wants above all to provide a guide of good practices for the merchants.
He succeeded beyond all hope. Merchants follow his recommendations, constantly maintaining a situation analysis of their business. The clarity of their accountings puts an end to the mistrust of their clients.
Pacioli has a breakthrough influence on the art of the later Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci is passionate about the book up to becoming a close friend to the author. He reuses in his Last Supper the geometrical principles proposed by the mathematician. A direct influence by Pacioli on Dürer is also very likely.
On June 12 in New York, Christie's sells a complete copy from the second issue of the first edition, printed circa 1502. This book is in its original state : it was not trimmed and has kept its period vellum wrapper. It is estimated $ 1M, lot 1. Please watch the video shared by the auction house.
This June 12 we will offer at auction Luca Pacioli’s Summa de Arithmetica: The Birth of Modern Business in #NewYork. Known to represent "the pinnacle of mathematical knowledge in the Renaissance" Pacioli's book is considerably an icon of the history of all human knowledge. pic.twitter.com/RYSyANDl4V— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) February 21, 2019
1505 The Computer of the Ottoman Sky
2014 SOLD for £ 960K including premium
This instrument of very high complexity in its geometric design and of remarkable sharp engraving reached an angular accuracy around one degree.
Muslim astronomers have developed this instrument for centuries, from the late second century AH. Nearly all celestial phenomena were used as references or studied: solstices, equinoxes, eclipses, planet motions. The precision was so high that the error brought by the precession of the equinoxes can now be used to date the instrument.
In seeking the knowledge of the sky, astronomers also aimed at astrology and watched the zodiacal signs.
The Sultan Bayezid II encouraged astronomy. Two astrolabes made for the use of his court are known. One of them is estimated £ 800K, for sale by Sotheby's in London on October 8, lot 135.
This brass instrument of 9.5 cm diameter is complete with all its fixed and rotating parts. The knob for the rotation on the central axis is later.
This astrolabe is indeed a masterpiece of Ottoman science, with numerous engraved inscriptions and reduced decoration. The choice of the reference star is made by the user among no less than fifteen star pointers.
It is signed and dated 911 AH, corresponding to 1505 to 1506 in our calendar. The fact that the author is not otherwise recorded just means that he did not write a treatise.
1510 The Codex Leicester of Leonardo da Vinci
1994 SOLD for $ 31M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
Leonardo is neither a scientist nor an engineer in the modern meaning of these terms. He does not waste his time analyzing the consequences of his theories or conceiving the realization of his inventions. In his swarming of ideas, he could be wonderfully right and naively wrong, and he was certainly unable to distinguish between these two extremes.
For this left-hander, the mirror writing is the way he has found so that his thinking is not slowed down by his hand. The use of numerous abbreviations, which makes these texts extremely difficult to decipher, is consistent with this hypothesis. We will never know how he desired exploiting such a unique mass of informations.
These writings were later assembled into notebooks, identified under the more technical term of codex. The Codex Leicester is the only one remaining in private hands. It was sold twice by Christie's, for $ 5.1M on December 12, 1980 and for $ 31M including premium on November 11, 1994. Between these two sales it was named the Codex Hammer. It was bought by Bill Gates at the last auction. The image is shared by Wikimedia.
The Codex Leicester is made up of 18 double sheets of parchment for a total of 72 pages 22 x 30 cm. It brings together his notes written around 1510 on the theme of the water movements. The author imagines that his ideas could be used for the design of bridges.
His observation on the presence of fossils in the mountains brings an explanation far ahead of his time : they were originally in a seabed which was raised by a geophysical phenomenon. This hypothesis is all the more remarkable since the monotheistic religions of his time do not question the creationism.
In the same notebook, he explains the luminosity of the Moon by the reflection of sunlight on its surface entirely covered with water.
1540 Visit to an Old Canon
2016 SOLD for £ 1.8M including premium
Georg Joachim Rheticus was fond of astronomy, perhaps as a result of the appearance of the comet of 1531. He enrolled at the University of Wittenberg led by Melanchthon, the theoretician of Lutheranism.
As early as 1536, Rheticus was appointed professor of mathematics. Barely released from astrology, astronomy was at that time a branch of mathematics. The learned calculations made by Regiomontanus in the previous century had fruitfully revived the speculation about the true movements of the planets.
Two years later, Melanchthon allows Rheticus to suspend his teaching for a tour of Europe where he will visit the humanists. He hears of an old canon who spent his lifetime improving his astronomical calculations at such a point to solve the old issue of the motion of Earth, discussed since antiquity.
Rheticus so becomes the assistant to Copernicus in Frauenburg (Frombork). For nearly thirty years, the canon had refined the text of his demonstration of the heliocentric system, sometimes sending manuscripts to the very few scholars able to understand it. He does not think to edit because of an obvious difficulty to print his figures.
Rheticus supports Copernicus with enthusiasm. The younger scientist prepares a comprehensible summary with the agreement of the master. Printed in Gdansk in 1540, that 'De libris revolutionum ... narratio prima' is the first report ever published on heliocentrism. The theory is clearly and fully attributed to Copernicus without indicating the name of his efficient collaborator.
This first edition is extremely rare. A copy is estimated £ 1.2M for sale by Christie's in London on July 13, lot 87.
1543 That Copernicus book revolutionized the science
2008 SOLD 2.2 M$ including premium
Of relatively small size (20 x 27 cm, 202 pages), this book that forever changed the design we had of the universe is decorated with woodcuts and tables of calculations.
A copy of the original edition is now for sale at Christie's, lot 60 of the sale of New York on June 17. It is nicely printed, and remained extremely clean. In its flexible binding of same period, it was part of a prestigious library during the seventeenth century.
Its estimate? 900 K $.
One of my previous articles made me review the fate in two April auctions of books by other big names in science, including De humani corporis of Vesalus, also of 1543. This very important book did not find a buyer in Paris on April 23 for 140 K €, at Pierre Bergé et Associés.
New York is not Paris, but I am afraid that Christie's get some difficulties to sell this book.
POST SALE COMMENT
After revolutionizing science, this book has just revolutionized the auction world: $ 2.2 million fees included. It is a very important result for a an exceptional specimen of one of the most significant books in the history of our civilization.
1613 The Garden of Eichstätt
2016 SOLD for £ 1.93M including premium
The prince-bishop of Eichstätt is passionate about flowers. His garden has eight sections or terraces where plants are grouped according to their origin. He entrusts the maintenance of the garden and the drawings of the plants to a botanist-apothecary based in Nuremberg, Basilius Besler.
Besler prepares 366 plates with an average of three plants per page. They are classified by season and the reader can compare the phases of a plant including bulb, flower and fruit. The Hortus Eystettensis is issued in 300 copies in 1613, in a very large format 54 x 42 cm. The deluxe version is only printed on one side to avoid the shadow of the back, and hand colored. It may be the most expensive book of its time.
A few copies began circulating in Rome in the circle of the Accademia dei Lincei. This academy is one of the earliest scientific societies in the modern sense of that wording. Its goal is to understand nature from an objective observation. In 1611, the Accademia welcomes into its ranks Galileo and also Faber, the director of the papal botanical garden.
It was known that one of the last sets of uncolored plates of the Hortus Eystettensis was purchased for the use of Faber in 1617. We did not know more. It is probably this one that has just surfaced.
On July 13 in London, Christie's sells that deluxe copy, lot 173estimated £ 800K. It is complete of Besler's 366 plates, without the additional botanical text. Before it got its binding, this copy was supplemented with fifteen drawings and one print of a rare plant that was the pride of the garden of Cardinal Farnese. This 1619 dated plate is dedicated to Faber. The whole book was colored by a single hand.
Let us comment the considerable interest of the Roman Catholic aristocracy for flowers. The preparation of the Hortus Eystettensis is indeed contemporary to the artistic study of flowers executed throughout the summer of 1606 by Jan Brueghel from the incitement of the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan.
Please watch the video shared by Christie's :
1638 Mechanics and Motion
2017 SOLD for € 730K including premium
He begins with cosmology. Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, published in Florence in 1632, is placed on the following year in the Index of forbidden books. Galileo now suspect of heresy can no longer publish his works in a Catholic country. Fortunately this ban does not stop his activity.
The treatise on physics, titled Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze attenenti alla mecanica e i movimenti locali, is ready in 1636. The comte of Noailles transmits a copy to Elzevier who publishes the book at Leyden in 1638. The book is dedicated to Noailles.
The Discorsi includes Galileo's assertion that the distance traveled in a naturally accelerated movement is proportional to the square of time. Galileo supports this discovery by describing an experiment using a steel ball rolling in a groove. For three and a half centuries the learned world will question the possibility of such measurement with the required accuracy at the time of that demonstration. It is now taken for sure that this very real experiment, published for the first time in the Discorsi, was made by Galileo in 1604.
On April 26 in Paris (Drouot), the auction house Pierre Bergé et Associés in co-operation with Sotheby's sells the association copy of the comte de Noailles, lot 21 estimated € 700K. Some typographical errors are present but without the usual erratum, suggesting that this copy was the very first that was released from Elzevier's presses. It is assembled in a sumptuous 'à la fanfare' binding attributed to Le Gascon, certainly commissioned by Noailles.
Physics is less disruptive than astronomy for the religious authorities and the Discorsi will not be threatened. Much later Einstein would acknowledge Galileo rather than Newton as the father of modern physics and more generally of modern science.
1687 The Universal Philosophy revealed to the World
2016 SOLD for $ 3.7M including premium
One of his outstanding skills was to develop mathematical methods of high complexity to analyze and support his own physical theories. Even before he was 30, he compared the motion of the planets and the fall of the bodies. Essentially preoccupied with his own understanding of the mechanism of the universe, he published sparingly.
In 1684 in London, the scientists of the Royal Society challenged themselves to find the mathematical formulation of the law of motion of the planets described by Kepler. All failed. Halley visits Newton in Cambridge. He is stunned : Newton knows the solution but has lost his calculation notes. The orbital movement of a celestial body is an ellipse whose position of the other body is one of the foci.
The scientific stake is highly important and Halley manages to persuade Newton to disclose in their entirety his results concerning the law of universal gravitation. Edited and financed by Halley, Newton's Latin book entitled Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is published in 1687 with the imprimatur of the Royal Society.
The book is difficult in the opinion of the author himself and the circulation probably did not exceed 300 copies but it is of such scientific importance that Halley and Newton took care of organizing their sale through booksellers. One of them named Samuel Smith is more specifically entrusted to the supply onto the Continent and receives about 50 copies for that purpose.
On December 14 in New York, Christie's sells a copy in a luxury binding in inlaid morocco, presented in that state by Smith to an unidentified recipient. It is estimated $ 1M, lot 167.
Another association copy with a binding of a comparable luxury is known. It was offered to King James II, patron of the Royal Society. This book was sold for $ 2.5M including premium by Christie's on December 6, 2013 over a lower estimate of $ 400K.
1704 The Dispersion of Light
2015 SOLD for $ 1.33M including premium
In 1672, he manages to suppress the chromatic aberration in the telescopes and reveals his findings at the Royal Society which publishes his lecture in its Philosophical Transactions.
The great scientist had a difficult temperament and did not accept contradiction. Robert Hooke, who had considered before Newton a wave property of light, is challenging some elements. The hatred between the two physicists is irremediable. Newton refuses to publish his book all along Hooke's lifetime.
Fortunately, Newton also has friends such as Edmund Halley who helps him to publish in 1687 his seminal book on the use of mathematics to model the gravitational properties of matter, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
Opticks is finally printed and released in London in 1704, curiously without the author's name, the year after the death of Hooke. Newton added two discussions on curvilinear figures, in order to establish his priority over an ongoing work by Leibniz.
The copy of Opticks presented by Newton to Halley is estimated $ 400K for sale by Sotheby's in New York on December 4, lot 918. It is not dedicated but Halley wrote on the inside title page: "Luceo. Ex dono doctissimi authoris". Luceo, which does not mean anything in Latin, is a burst of enthusiasm based on Lux.
1745-1749 The Scientific Archives of Cirey
2012 SOLD for € 960K including premium by Christie's
2018 SOLD for € 510K including premium
Helped by Maupertuis and Clairaut, the Marquise du Châtelet is able to understand and comment on Newton and Leibniz. In their château de Cirey, the marquis admires the exceptional intelligence of his wife and closes his eyes on her loves.
In 1734 Voltaire is disgraced. The Marquise lodges him in Cirey. She is 27 years old. The philosopher learns from his mistress the mathematics and physics that he had largely neglected until then.
The Marquise is a tireless worker. Her manuscripts, often written by secretaries and extensively reworked by her, surfaced a few years ago in an attic. Important pieces were sold by Christie's on October 29, 2012. A call for donations had been issued for an acquisition by the French State and 1400 researchers from around the world had signed a petition for a pre-emption. Both moves were unsuccessful because of the high prices that were expected.
The top lot was a set of 35 workbooks prepared from 1745 to 1749 by Madame du Châtelet for the didactic abstracts accompanying her translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica. Estimated € 400K, it was acquired in that sale for € 960K including premium by the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits de Paris which had immediately communicated its commitment to exhibit it to the public.
The museum was managed by Aristophil. In the same sale, Aristophil had anonymously acquired 8 lots of manuscripts by the Marquise, 2 lots of manuscripts by Voltaire on Newton and a portrait of the Marquise attributed to Marie-Anne Loir.
These 12 lots will be sold in Paris - Drouot on November 19 by OVA, the company in charge of the legal dispersion of the Aristophil collections. The auction is operated by Artcurial. Pieces from the 2012 sale are now lots 679 to 690. The abstracts of the Principia are the lot 689.
Lot 689 SOLD for € 510K including premium