Auctions | May 14, 2014

Bonhams Presents the Untold Story of the 20th Century

New York—Bonhams, the third largest international fine art auction house, will be taking a closer look at the recent past in its upcoming Fine Books & Manuscripts auction, The Story of the 20th Century, to be held on June 4 in New York. The auction examines the last century from several angles, including history & politics, art & literature and science & technology, closing with a private collection of materials related to the history of computing.

One important highlight of the History & Politics section is an extensive photographic archive from John David Zumbrun, a westerner operating a photography studio in Beijing from 1908-1929. Zumbrun's photographs document all walks of life in China at the time, giving viewers a perspective on a cultural period still largely unknown to this day (estimate $300,000-500,000). A three-minute black and white silent movie of Leon Trotsky in Mexico reveals a curious glimpse of his life after exile from Russia and is expected to fetch between $35,000-45,000. Lastly, an extremely rare prototype version of Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" has an estimate between $20,000-30,000.

The Arts & Literature section is anchored by an important graphic archive of Soviet architect and futuristic visionary, Yakov Chernikov, consisting of more than 1,000 original and richly detailed illustrations (estimate $350,000-450,000).  John Steinbeck's manuscript and research material for the novel "Sweet Thursday" is expected to bring $120,000-180,000. A rare example of Dr. Seuss's "unorthodox taxidermy" ?the "Mulberry Street Unicorn" is on offer at $60,000-90,000. Seuss sculptures are very rare, with some scholars estimating there are fewer than 30 examples known today.

Star lots in Science & Technology include the first printing and appearance of Planck's "Quantum Theory," which is expected to sell between $20,000-30,000. Also on offer are the first edition offprint issues of the Wright brothers' published aviation reports, one investigating motor-less flight (estimate $30,000-50,000) and the other, a written account of a machine the Wrights developed and modified, eventually leading to the first motorized flight in history (estimate $25,000-35,000). Another important aviation-related artifact is pioneer Samuel F. Cody's expansive archive of photographs, journals, objects, blueprints and personal files documenting man-lifting kite experiments (estimate $150,000-200,000). Finally, a curious item: a tape recording of Richard Feynman in which he discusses being selected by the government to join a committee investigating the space shuttle Challenger disaster. This is the only recorded interview featuring Feynman's voice that has ever come to auction (estimate $5,000-8,000).

In the final section, the History of Digital Computing, on offer is a first edition of the most important 20th century paper in computer science, Alan Turing's "On Computable Numbers" (estimate $25,000-35,000), which led to the development of a universal computing machine.  Claude Shannon's work, "A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits," in which he describes the possibilities for performing complex mathematical operations by means of relay circuits—the basic notion on which all modern computers are built—is being offered for $8,000-12,000.

"In this sale we have trained our lenses--which are usually focused on the distant past—on recent history, and the moments that have shaped the world in which we live today," said Dr. Catherine Williamson, Director of Fine Books and Manuscripts at Bonhams.

The Story of the 20th Century Auction takes place on June 4 in Bonhams Madison Avenue salesroom, New York.

The online catalog is available at a few weeks preceding the sale.