Auctions | October 21, 2013

Einstein Letter to a Student at Bonhams’ Books & Manuscripts Sale

Los Angeles—The greatest minds in mathematics and science made a strong impact in the Books and Manuscripts sale at Bonhams in Los Angeles on October 16. Some of the key highlights included a letter from Albert Einstein, a first edition of Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems and a signed photograph of Charles Darwin.

A typed letter signed "A. Einstein," dated July 21, 1953, Princeton, New Jersey, to David H. Albaugh, on personal blind stamped letterhead, sold for an impressive $62,500 including premium. In the letter, Einstein replies to a college student's inquiry as to whether he had resolved the question of the existence of God in the study of the perceivable universe, which Einstein replied: "The question should rather be: How far is it reasonable and justified to assume the existence of an unperceivable being?" The letter is also excerpted in The New Quotable Einstein (2005), a book containing the written and spoken thoughts of the multifaceted and cultural icon. Long competitive bidding amongst phone, sale room and online bidders provided the ideal atmosphere to demonstrate the value of Einstein's musings on religion.

In addition, Kurt Gödel's paper, known in English as "On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I," had an enormous impact on the fields of mathematics, computer science and philosophy. The famed paper includes Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems as well as the technique he invented to prove them, known as “Gödel Numbering.” The paper sold for $68,750 from an estimate of $30,000-50,000.

Also contributing to the success of the sale was the signed photograph of Charles Darwin taken by famed portraitist, Julia Margaret Cameron, which sold for $35,000 against an estimate of $15,000-25,000. The important and powerful image of the great naturalist was taken when Darwin went on a month-long holiday with his family to Freshwater in the Isle of Wight, where he met Cameron. The rare and unique story behind the photograph's creation appealed to bidders and showed a more familial side to Darwin.

The other top selling items included a very rare Revolutionary War broadside dating from just three days before the battle of Bunker Hill. It proclaimed British General Thomas Gage's "infamous thing" - the declaration of martial law in the province of Massachusetts and went on to sell for $56,250 (est. $15,000-25,000). Of the presidential portraits, a signed photograph of Abraham Lincoln sold for $22,500. Furthermore, a collection of signed letters detailing an extensive eye-witness account of General Winfield Scott's campaign during the Mexican-American War sold for $25,000. Likewise, the sale included a varied selection of maps, one of which was a rare set of Hondius's Maps of the Four Continents that sold for $30,000.

Of the fine press highlights, the Arkham House collection of approximately 190 volumes in the horror and weird fiction genres sold for $30,000. Lastly, a signed letter by Samuel Clemens and the first edition in English of Isaac Newton's The Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy both sold for $18,750 each. In the end, the auction achieved a total of $1.1 million.