December 2016 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Newton's "Principia" in Deluxe Binding Expected to Reach $1 Million

Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Prinicipia for short) is a hallmark book in the history of science, "perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make," according to Einstein. And as such it has long been one of those book collecting 'high spots' that can run to six and seven figures, depending upon condition, provenance, and, as in the case of the one headed for auction at Christie's New York on December 14, the binding.

53379559_a copy.jpgThis first edition, printed in 1687, is bound in full gold-tooled red morocco (goatskin). The deluxe binding--of which only one other has been seen at auction in half a century, and that one was owned by King James II--was commissioned by the publisher/bookseller Samuel Smith as a presentation copy. It is unknown to whom he gave the volume, or where it traveled afterward, but the present owner has had it since it last appeared at auction in 1966, according to Francis Wahlgren at Christie's.   

This Principia in its "fine London Restoration mosaic binding" is clearly reminiscent of the King James II copy referenced above, which sold for $2.5 million in 2013. The catalogue points out, however, that this one is from the "scarcer Continental issue" of the first edition.  

First editions of Principia periodically appear on the market. Christie's sold one as recently as July, from the Giancarlo Beltrame library, for £266,500 ($353,912). But the one on offer later this month, estimated at $1-1.5 million, has everything going for it: it's a fresh-to-market first edition of a scientific touchstone, in a glorious contemporary binding, and it has direct association with someone involved in its publication.

Image: Christie's Images Ltd. 2016.