ENGLISH

Collecting Guide: Scientific books

Books and Manuscripts specialist Sven Becker advises on a richly rewarding and constantly evolving collectors’ market, which has seen the four most valuable scientific books ever sold all auctioned at Christie’s

Why collect scientific books?

Science and printing are deeply intertwined. Today scientists fly to international conferences and use the internet to share their insights, but until recently print was the fundamental medium through which scientists made their discoveries public. The development of nearly all that characterises modern life — including the internet, the planes that ship scholars and smartphones around the world, and the atomic energy that powers it all — is recorded in books.

To hold in your hands an example of a book that singlehandedly re-organized our idea of the solar system, such as Copernicus’s De Revoltionibus Orbium Coelestium, or of the work that introduced the idea that life-forms evolved over millions of years — Darwin’s On the Origin of Species — is a humbling experience. These and many other scientific books had a profound impact that went far beyond their fields — on the very course of human culture, philosophy, religion and more. That realisation — the feeling that, ‘I’m holding something that changed the world’ — is the most compelling, most beguiling reason to collect scientific books.

Nicolaus Copernicus. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Nuremberg 1543. The first edition of this landmark of science — one of the most important publications in this and any field. Sold for $2,210,500 at Christie’s in New York in June 2008, making it the third most valuable scientific book at auction

Nicolaus Copernicus. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Nuremberg: 1543. The first edition of this landmark of science — one of the most important publications in this and any field. Sold for $2,210,500 at Christie’s in New York in June 2008, making it the third most valuable scientific book at auction

Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species. London 1859. The first edition of this revolutionary and influential work. Sold for £103,250 at Christie’s London in November 2009. The price of this copy reflects its unusually high quality — this title often shows a lot of wear

Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species. London: 1859. The first edition of this revolutionary and influential work. Sold for £103,250 at Christie’s London in November 2009. The price of this copy reflects its unusually high quality — this title often shows a lot of wear

These revolutionary works are the Leonardos, Turners, Monets and Picassos of the book world: they are important and were produced by household names — Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc — which guarantees them broad appeal. Collecting these volumes often means buying at the top end, yet even at this level it’s possible to build a very important scientific library for less than the cost of one mid-range Turner.

What are the different ways to approach collecting?

Collectors of scientific books approach the task in many different ways. Some collect broadly across a specific time period, say the long century between Copernicus and Newton. Others might invent an alter ego, asking themselves before every purchase, ‘If I was a scientist in Amsterdam around 1650, would I own this book’?

Another strategy is to target scientific books that are undervalued, or that provide insights so prescient that their true impact has not yet been fully appreciated. There are opportunities in keeping up with advances in fields such as genetic engineering, information technology or alternative energy. 

Alan Turing. ‘On Computable Numbers’, from Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society. London 1936. The foundation of modern digital computing, and Turing’s most important and lasting achievement in mathematics. Sold for £18,750 at Christie’s London in June 2013

Alan Turing. ‘On Computable Numbers’, from Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society. London: 1936. The foundation of modern digital computing, and Turing’s most important and lasting achievement in mathematics. Sold for £18,750 at Christie’s London in June 2013

Albert Einstein. Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie. Leipzig 1916. The first edition of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Sold for $2,000 at Christie’s in New York in April 2016. There is not always a direct relation between the price of a book and how important it is

Albert Einstein. Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie. Leipzig: 1916. The first edition of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Sold for $2,000 at Christie’s in New York in April 2016. There is not always a direct relation between the price of a book and how important it is

Some choose to collect books that relate to their professional field — anatomy for doctors, geology for oil prospectors, game theory for hedge fund managers — which brings a deeper understanding of one’s vocation, and a lot of pleasure along the way. Collecting in one field, or tracking the development of one particular idea, makes it possible to appreciate the cumulative aspect of human endeavour, that those we call geniuses owe a great debt to many that came before. ‘If I have seen further,’ said Newton paraphrasing a philosopher born six centuries earlier, ‘it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’

Whether collecting broadly, deeply, or selectively, the key is always to collect with the heart. There is nothing wrong in collecting with financial return in mind: some collectors have done very well buying and selling scientific books this way. In general, book values appreciate steadily over time, slowly but surely, avoiding the fluctuations seen in other parts of the art market.

Are there shortcuts available to a new collector?

One of the most valuable shortcuts is to mine the experience of others. People in the field of scientific books are usually fiercely knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and often willing to share information. Academics know interesting things, and reading around a subject will lead to exciting discoveries and new acquisitions. But making a decision in the context of a financial transaction brings laser focus to what really matters. Auction specialists, book dealers and seasoned collectors will have spent many years (and much capital) coming to grips with what is genuinely important and truly worth having. So pounce on every opportunity to talk to them. 

Athanasius Kircher. Mundus subterraneus. Amsterdam 1665. The only known coloured copy of Kircher’s superbly illustrated book on volcanoes. Sold for £146,500 at Christie’s London in July 2016

Athanasius Kircher. Mundus subterraneus. Amsterdam: 1665. The only known coloured copy of Kircher’s superbly illustrated book on volcanoes. Sold for £146,500 at Christie’s London in July 2016

Jacques Gautier d’Agoty. Myologie complette, and other works. Paris 1746-1752. Gautier’s illustrations marked a turning point in the field. Both this and Kircher’s book demonstrate that scientific books can also be collected for their artistic merits. Sold for £50,000 at Christie’s London in July 2016

Jacques Gautier d’Agoty. Myologie complette, and other works. Paris: 1746-1752. Gautier’s illustrations marked a turning point in the field. Both this and Kircher’s book demonstrate that scientific books can also be collected for their artistic merits. Sold for £50,000 at Christie’s London in July 2016

What affects the value of scientific books?

Collecting books is a romantic pursuit: in many ways it’s about connecting with the time and place when an idea first came into the world and changed it. The book comes to represent that turning point, which is why collectors favour a first edition over a later edition that might be cheaper, and turn their backs on a digital version that might be free. With the big questions asked — ‘Is this book important?’ ‘Is it the right edition?’ — almost everything that affects a book’s value boils down to one factor: rarity.

Books are typically printed in editions of hundreds of copies, but over time many copies might be lost in circumstances that are sometimes dramatic (such as war or political upheaval) and sometimes prosaic (a scamp rips out pages to make paper planes, or the book is read so often that it falls apart). In general the more copies that survive, the easier a book can be found and the lower the price.

But rarity also has more subjective aspects, including the condition in which the book is found, and whether a particular copy has an interesting history. When they come off the press all the copies of a book are basically identical, but over time they weather differently, and they sometimes acquire unique characteristics.

In earlier times buying a new book usually meant buying only the printed sheets, which the buyer would then have bound according to their taste and budget. In these instances you definitely need to judge a book by its cover: some bindings are so refined that they are works of art in their own right, although they are also rare, with prices to match.

Books in superior condition command higher prices because they too are comparatively rarer; but also because it’s easier to appreciate the typography, design and intent without niggling flaws — it’s easier to be transported to that time and place.

How important is provenance?

If someone celebrated has owned the book, or if a book was once in the library of another scientist who used it to derive fresh insights, it can be transformed into a unique object judged on its own terms. The 16th-century copy of De humani corporis fabrica presented by the great anatomist Vesalius to his patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is a striking example. 

Andreas Vesalius. De humani corporis fabrica. Basel 1543. First edition. The only completely coloured copy known, bound in contemporary purple silk velvet, presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Sold for $1,652,500 at Christie’s in New York in March 1998

Andreas Vesalius. De humani corporis fabrica. Basel: 1543. First edition. The only completely coloured copy known, bound in contemporary purple silk velvet, presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Sold for $1,652,500 at Christie’s in New York in March 1998

Christiaan Huygens. Horologium oscillatorium. Paris 1673. First edition. The author’s own copy of his most important work, annotated by him. Sold for $965,000 at Christie’s in New York in December 2014

Christiaan Huygens. Horologium oscillatorium. Paris: 1673. First edition. The author’s own copy of his most important work, annotated by him. Sold for $965,000 at Christie’s in New York in December 2014

What are experienced collectors looking for?

In today’s digital world, the definition of rarity has changed. Rare books were among the first collectibles traded online, and since those early days most books have become easier than ever to find. As a result the value of many fairly mundane books has gone down considerably, but the value of interesting ones has gone up tremendously.

When confronted with multiple copies of the same book, savvy collectors are increasingly looking for something that distinguishes one copy from all the others. This can be an inscription from the author; a bookplate recording that a copy once belonged to a notable collector or an esteemed contemporary; an unusually attractive binding on a book that is usually found in plain covers; or condition that is so fine that the copy is now in a league of its own. Whatever form it takes, that uniqueness is now an absolute requirement for most serious collectors. 

NEWTON, Sir Isaac (1642-1727), Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1687. Edited by Edmond Halley (1656-1743). London Joseph Streater for the Royal Society [at the expense of Edmond Halley], to be sold by Samuel Smith and other booksellers. This lot was offered in Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, including Americana on 14 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for

NEWTON, Sir Isaac (1642-1727), Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1687. Edited by Edmond Halley (1656-1743). London: Joseph Streater for the Royal Society [at the expense of Edmond Halley], to be sold by Samuel Smith and other booksellers. This lot was offered in Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, including Americana on 14 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $3,719,500

Isaac Newton. Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. London 1687. First edition. Presentation copy to King James II, patron of the Royal Society, to whose fellowship the book is dedicated. Sold for $2,517,000 at Christie’s in New York in December 2013, becoming the most valuable scientific book sold at auction

Isaac Newton. Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. London: 1687. First edition. Presentation copy to King James II, patron of the Royal Society, to whose fellowship the book is dedicated. Sold for $2,517,000 at Christie’s in New York in December 2013, becoming the most valuable scientific book sold at auction

Sometimes a book ticks all of those boxes, which has a major impact on price. Newton’s Principia, for example, is a book normally found in a functional brown leather binding, and usually with some condition problems because it was studied so closely; average copies typically sell for about $200,000. The remarkable copy presented by Newton to his patron King James II, however, bound in a gleaming red goatskin binding, sold for more than $2,000,000.

Isaac Newton. Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. London 1687. First edition. Sold for £266,500 at Christie’s London in July 2016. A very attractive copy which, compared to the James II copy, demonstrates the impact on price of unique characteristics 

Isaac Newton. Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. London: 1687. First edition. Sold for £266,500 at Christie’s London in July 2016. A very attractive copy which, compared to the James II copy, demonstrates the impact on price of unique characteristics 

This focus on the unique has turned a spotlight on to connoisseurship, and made book-collecting much more interesting. Not all books yield their charms as easily as that spectacular Newton, and there is a real thrill in being able to decipher an ownership mark, or identify a relationship that was missed by others. The collection of scientific books offers so many opportunities for such discoveries, making it especially rewarding, combining the pleasures of detective work with the thrill of the hunt.