Rare math (and science) auction


Christie’s auction house made today’s news, with the results of Tuesday’s auction of the Richard Green library, a private collection of hundreds of rare scientific works.

The headline-grabbing items were one of the first telephone directories, and a first-edition of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543) that fetched $2.2 million. (A second-edition of this text, from 1566, went for just under $100,000.)

Some of the mathematical highlights from the auction:

  • a 1566 Latin translation of Apollonius’s books V – VII on conics sold for c. $12K
  • Menebrea’s account of Babbage’s Analytical Engine, translated by Ada Lovelace (published 1843) sold for $170K
  • a first edition (1734) of Bishop Berkeley’s The Analyst sold for c. $9K
  • a first edition (1713) of Jacob Bernoulli’s (posthumous) Ars conjectandi sold for $20K
  • Boole: Investigation of the Laws of Thought ($4400)
  • Jean D’Alembert Traite de Dynamique (1743) [$4750]
  • Descartes Discours de la Method… (1637) [$116.5K]
  • A 3 rotor Enigma machine from c. 1939 sold for just over $100,000
  • Two Euler first editions: Methodus inveniendi… (1744) and the two-volume Introductio in analysin infinitorum [1748] sold for $7500 and $8750 respectively
  • an original printing of Godel’s 1931 paper on the incompleteness of arithmetic sold for $44K
  • Lagrange Mechanique Analitique [$18K]
  • Laplace Traite de Mecanique [$20K]
  • Leibnitz’s 1684 paper from the Acta Eruditorum on the differential calculus sold for $7500
  • An 1834 printing of Lobachevsky’s Algebra or the Calculus of Finite Numbers sold for $17,500
  • Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition of Euclid (the colorized version), containing books 1 through 6, sold for $3500
  • A first (1617) edition of Napier’s Rabdologiae (giving an account of Napier’s bones) sold for $80K; a second (1626) edition fetched $5K
  • A first (1687) edition of Newton’s Principia Mathematica sold for $195K; a third (1726) edition for $12,500. A first (1729) edition of the english translation sold for $44,000.
  • The first printed edition of Ptolemi’s Almagest (edited by Regiomontanus and Purbachius, printed 1496) sold for $50K
  • A 1537 first edition of a work on ballistics and engineering by Tartaglia sold for $20K
  • A first (1579) edition of Viete’s Canon mathematicus sold for $93K

There’s lots more cool stuff (including the original publication of the Piltdown Man hoax), and tons of significant early works in the physical and biological sciences.

Richard Green clearly had an amazing library. Seeing it scatter at auction is slightly sad, although we are rapidly entering an era of ready access to (scans of) first editions of many of these historic materials. Possibly the era of coveting rare vellum is nearing an end.

It’d still be way cool to own an Enigma machine, though.


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