Rare Science Books and Manuscripts at Bonhams: On Black Holes and the “Science of Kingship”
In the moment, scientific discoveries often feel utterly new, from Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe in 1543 to the first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope in 2022. The excitement of a paradigm shift can often overshadow the rich history behind each fresh development. Bonhams’ current 10 Exceptional Works of Science auction works against that instinct. The tightly-curated sale celebrates some of history’s most important figures and moments of scientific achievement. The online event runs through July 27, 2022 at 10:00 AM EDT.
Darren Sutherland, Bonhams’ Specialist of Books and Manuscripts in New York, spoke with Auction Daily about the strands tying the lots together. Each lot builds on the others, starting with Isaac Newton’s Principia and James Clerk Maxwell’s theories of electromagnetism before extending to the work of Henri Poincaré, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking.
Leading the sale is a 15th-century illuminated manuscript on vellum detailing the science of kingship (lot #1; estimate: USD 120,000 – $180,000). This volume is a prime example of the “mirror for princes” genre, an educational style used to teach young princes the political science behind ruling. Its content draws on myriad influences. The writer references the works of Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, and even chivalric romance stories. The Ten Commandments form the text’s foundation and give the piece its French name: the Decacornon.
Charles V of France likely commissioned the Decacornon. Charles believed in the philosophy of good governance, which he felt could and should be taught to future generations. In part to support that desire, he rebuilt the Louvre near the start of his reign and added an enormous, elaborate library. Charles filled that library with existing books, fresh translations in the French vernacular, and brand new commissions.
“He really believed that both being a good king and being a good citizen relied on some form of education and a passing on of knowledge and wisdom,” Sutherland told us. “It’s incredibly useful and timely as a concept in 2022, this idea that these things can be taught– the idea of being a good citizen or a good leader can somehow be passed on from generation to generation.”
This example last appeared at auction in 1972 when the famed Sir Thomas Phillipps Collection sold at Sotheby’s. Today, there is only one other known copy of the manuscript, housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Another notable lot in the 10 Exceptional Works of Science sale is a scientific book from the library of Georg Joachim Rheticus (lot #2; estimate: $100,000 – $150,000). Rheticus played a critical role in shifting 16th-century thought from geocentrism and toward a heliocentric model by promoting Copernicus’ groundbreaking theories.
Placing the Sun at the center of the universe instead of the Earth was a radical act at that time. Rheticus shepherded heliocentrism through the German religious establishment and ensured that Copernicus’ ideas saw the light of day. “Many people may never have heard of Rheticus, yet he was the prime reason that Copernicus even became known or anyone knew anything about him,” Sutherland told us.
The available book is a compendium of writings for 16th-century students of science and astronomy. Based on extant student notes, this 1561 textbook includes topics that interested Rheticus and guided his lectures. “It’s the science of geometry and trigonometry and how it relates to our conception of the universe. It’s a super interesting topic for Rheticus to be looking at,” Sutherland said.
On the title page of this volume is Rheticus’ signature, written in the ablative or dative case as “Iochamo Rhaeticus.” A book signed by Rheticus last appeared at auction more than 40 years ago, and books and manuscripts from Rheticus’ library remain exceedingly rare.
Other key lots from the science books and manuscripts sale include a first edition copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia in English (lot #3; estimate: $50,000 – $70,000), an autographed final draft of Henri Poincaré’s final word on relativity (lot #7; estimate: $30,000 – $50,000), and a copy of Stephen Hawking’s “Black Hole Explosions?” article from the scientist’s personal library (lot #10; estimate: $20,000 – $30,000).
Bonhams’ Books and Manuscripts department will offer another timed auction in early August. Featuring the David Lloyd Collection of Modern Literature, this online event runs from August 1 through August 10, 2022. Lloyd was a renowned screenwriter and television producer associated with some of the biggest sitcoms of the 20th century. He wrote for Cheers, Taxi, Frasier, The Tonight Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for which he won an Emmy Award.
The first part of David Lloyd’s collection of books and manuscripts came to auction in late June 2022. It achieved strong results; a first edition copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes notably sold for $48,255, including premium. The upcoming event focuses on titles and authors familiar to the contemporary reader.
“The collection reflects what you would expect from a witty and funny and narrative-driven writer. It’s P. G. Wodehouse and Graham Greene and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frank Baum and the Oz books,” Sutherland said. “It really has a little bit of everything, and it’s a wonderful collection.”
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