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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

Jean Grolier’s copy of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and Einstein’s autographed draft of his General Theory of Relativity are among the notable buys this summer

From Abacus to Curved Space

Anonymous, Larte de Labbacho, Euros 240,750 ($296,320) at Sotheby’s Milan on June 16, and Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevskii, O nachalakh geometri [On the Principles of Geometry], $234,500 at Christie’s New York on June 22.

The first printed book on mathematics, published in Treviso, Italy, in 1478 as Larte de Labaccho, or the art of the abacus. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The first printed book on mathematics, published in Treviso, Italy, in 1478 as Larte de Labaccho, or the art of the abacus, is an anonymous work that limits itself to the commercial applications of arithmetic. It is extremely rare, with no copy seen at auction in recent times, and knowing no Italian, I found it quite difficult to gather more information. Eventually, I found some help and guidance on a website, where I direct more curious readers.

The author of that little Italian arithmetic is unknown, but the name of the nineteenth-century Russian mathematician will be more familiar, and some fans of the splendid Tom Lehrer, will even be able to sing you a song about him!

Nicolai Ivanovitch Lobachevskii’s revolutionary series of five papers on non-Euclidian geometry, in their original blue wrappers from 1829-1830. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The man that the editors of Printing and the Mind of Man dubbed the ‘Copernicus of geometry,’ Nicolai Ivanovitch Lobachevskii first read this work to colleagues in the department of physics and mathematics at Kazan University in February 1826, but this exceedingly rare first edition of the first published work on non-Euclidean geometry was not printed until 1829-30, when it appeared in a series of five papers in the university journal.

Though it was not really understood at the time and received less than complimentary views from some of his academic contemporaries, it was later realized that Lobachevskii’s work, along with that of Gauss, Bolyai, and Riemann, had shaken the foundations of geometry as accepted for 2,000 years and had paved the way to an Einsteinian concept of curved space.

In the original blue printed wrappers, now rebacked, this set is one of only two seen at auction in 30-40 years. The other was the Haskell F. Norman copy, which, bound up but still retaining those original wrappers, sold for $387,500 in the same rooms in 1998.

The Boozing Ken

Anonymous, Bacchus and Venus, £10,250 ($15,575) at Sotheby’s London on July 14.

An exceedingly rare Bacchus and Venus (1737) in a nineteenth-century binding. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Printed in 1737, this book describes itself on the title page as “a select collection of 200 of the most witty and diverting Songs and Catches in Love and Gallantry … to which is added a collection of songs in the Canting dialect.” To help out with the latter, the unknown author provides a dictionary “explaining all the burlesque and canting terms used by the several tribes of gypsies, beggars, and other clans of cheats and villains.”

The English Short-Title Catalogue lists only four copies—two of them in the Bodleian at Oxford and the others in the National Library of Scotland and at Harvard University—and the only copy to show up in auction records is this example in a nineteenth-century binding of polished calf from which the upper cover has become detached. The woodcut frontispiece is titled ‘The Boozing-Ken,’ a somewhat obscure term, I believe, for a disreputable tavern or low dive.

Six years ago, when Sotheby’s sold the superb library of the publisher, antiquarian bookseller, and collector John R. B. Brett-Smith, it was sold at £6,000 (then $10,945).

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