Britain’s scientific history to be sold at auction

Image: Thomas Hosmer Shepherd 

In a time of crisis, even the greatest of enemies will unite. Confronted with £2 million of debt, the Royal Institution has been forced to raid its historical archives to select scientific texts to put up for sale. Yet, the way these key books from the history of science are going to be sold is distinctively drawn from the world of art; these artefacts will be put under the hammer at one of London’s most prestigious auction houses.

The auction itself will take place at Christie’s ( “the art people”) on December 1st. Margaret Ford, the International Head of Books and Manuscripts at the auction house, is excited about the “important and interesting books” and describes them as “highly desirable”. This means it’s no surprise that some of the prices assigned to these scientific texts begin to compete with the dizzyingly-high guide prices more frequently associated with pieces of fine art.

For example, Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica collects the scientist’s anatomical studies that many argue function as the cornerstone of modern medical knowledge. In the auction, the Royal Institution’s richly illustrated first edition carries an estimated price of between £140,000 and £220,000. Another important text for sale is Johannes Kepler’s 1609 treatise Astronomia nova, which contains the physicist’s first articulations of his laws dictating planetary motion – and the first edition text on offer at the sale is expected to bring in another £90,000 to £120,000. A work by Isaac Newton that is less ‘rare’ has a been awarded a relatively meagre guide price of £1000-£1500.

The auction house highlights that many of the texts’ prices are heightened by their link with the prestigious Royal Institution. Founded in 1799, the Royal Institution has used its cast Renaissance-style headquarters as the hub for the promotion of science and technology to the masses. Under the directorship of luminary scientists such as the prolific Cornish chemist Humphry Davy and the electromagnetic pioneer Michael Faraday, 21 Albermale Street flourished as a meeting point for the scientific community and scientific research.

The Royal Institute’s iconic lecture hall perhaps best embodies these dual missions. Firstly, the theatre is the home of the famous Christmas Lecture series – first given by Faraday in 1825, the Christmas Lectures now invites schoolchildren to the Institution and tries to engage them with dazzling, interactive lectures on STEM subjects. Furthermore, the lecture theatre was also supposedly the only room large enough at the Institution for Faraday to assemble his first designs of his Faraday Cage. Yet, the Royal Institution’s building has also become a symbol of their recent troubles. In 2008, the organisation decided to undertake an ill-fated £22 million redevelopment of their headquarters just on the cusp of the financial crisis – and the beleaguered organisation has been trapped in debt since.

Though the money gained by selling off these historical scientific texts is desperately required, many argue that the Royal Institution is voiding their primary goal of enabling public access by placing examples of these crucial works into private hands. But this viewpoint can be confusing – in some cases, these works are digitised, and later editions of the text or reproductions still contain the same scientific theories. While physical  copies will be removed from the archives, the knowledge itself doesn’t become obscured.

Therefore, these objects have taken on more than their scientific utility; purchases desire the authenticity of these objects, and the way that they capture important moments that led to formation of the modern man. In some cases, the auctioneers even note the aesthetic value of  the books’ luscious illustrations and production techniques.

In October last year, Bonhams auction house held their first ever science-themed sale. In the twenty-first century, a new market is emerging of people who desire to attain these objects which contain a maker’s craft and a great cultural symbolism. The conclusion is therefore inescapable: science has become art.

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