Royal Institution to sell science treasures to rescue finances

First editions of Darwin, Newton, Humboldt and Kepler among groundbreaking works going on sale

Ninety works spanning three centuries of scientific inquiry are to go under the hammer at Christie’s in December, in an attempt to plug a £2m hole in the finances of the UK’s most venerable science charity, the Royal Institution.

The groundbreaking works in the history of medicine, science and the natural world include first editions from scientific luminaries such as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Leonhard Euler, Johannes Kepler and Alexander von Humboldt. They will be put up for auction on 1 December 2015. The selection ranges from the 16th to the 19th century, many of the volumes given added lustre by their connection to an institution founded in 1799 for “diffusing the knowledge” of science and technology.

According to Stefania Pandakovic, Christie’s head of sale, the “fantastic” selection includes books “which have not been on the market for over 200 years”.

“These works are not just some of the most important scientific texts from the last 400 years, offering a history of the development of science since the 16th century, but are also very special because of their connection with the Royal Institution,” Pandakovic said. “Many of them were donated by their authors, which makes them unique.”

The top lot of the sale is a first edition of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, published in 1543, with an estimated price of £140,000 to £220,000. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the Flemish anatomist studied human corpses himself, making repeated and comparative dissections of executed criminals. The 200 woodcuts in his masterpiece show the bones, muscles, blood vessels and internal organs of the human body, superseding the work of Galen, which had dominated European medicine for 1,500 years.

For Pandakovic, the copy of Vesalius which is to be auctioned is a remarkable treasure.

An image from De humani corporis fabrica libri septem by Vesalius, 1543
An image from De humani corporis fabrica libri septem by Vesalius, 1543 Photograph: Christie's

“It’s one of the most important and most beautiful anatomies in the history of medicine,” she said. “The woodblocks were prepared by an artist in the studio of Titian under Vesalius’s supervision, but it’s a book that was used by doctors to prepare for surgery and it’s difficult to find one in such good condition.” The Royal Institution’s copy belonged to a contemporary of Vesalius, the Ferrarese poet and playwright Alberto Lolli before passing via the extensive library of the Neapolitan doctor Gennaro Gianelli to the Duke of Wellington’s physician, Martin Tupper, who donated it to the institution in 1845. “The fact that it belonged to three such important figures before the Royal Institution, and that the ownership can be traced over 400 years, is extraordinary,” said Pandakovic.

Other highlights from the sale include first editions of Jacob Bernoulli’s Ars conjectandi, a 1713 treatise on probability in which the mathematician first derived the law of large numbers, Johannes Kepler’s Astronomia nova, the 1609 text in which the astronomer described his first two laws of planetary motion, and Vues des Cordillères, an account published in 1813 by Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland of their journey through Central and South America which paved the way for the scientific exploration of the continent. An extremely rare set of William Smith’s hand-coloured folding geological sections, showing the different strata of rock and heights of the land found in various locations around the UK, are expected to fetch between £30,000 and £50,000.

Pages from the 1609 first edition of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, still a cornerstone of astronomy.
Pages from the 1609 first edition of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, still a cornerstone of astronomy. Photograph: Christie's

The Royal Institution, which was founded in 1799 to carry out basic scientific research and support public engagement with science through lectures and demonstrations, has been running its annual Christmas lectures since Michael Faraday began them in 1825. It has been struggling with its finances since the completion of a £22m refurbishment of its central London headquarters in 2008. The project was intended to turn the Albermarle Street building into a “salon” for science and attract a wider audience. But during the economic downturn visitor numbers didn’t keep pace with running costs and by 2013, the charity found itself £7m in debt.

A proposal to sell the historic building was shelved after campaigners rallied round in support, with the charity deciding earlier this year to address the £2m of outstanding debt by increasing opportunities to make money from the premises through hire and tenancy, as well as a sale of items from the institution’s library collection.

The institution is hoping to raise more than £750,000 from the sale of the books, which have been selected by the Royal Institution’s trustees from its 20,000-volume collection, after what the institution’s head of marketing and communications Hayley Burwell called a “lengthy period of consideration”.

“The books are all classified as non-core heritage items,” Burwell said, “and were selected in line with the Royal Institution’s heritage policies which state that it will only acquire material for its collections (either through gift or purchase) that is of direct relevance to the Royal Institution.”

The focus on material that concerns the institution or those who have lived and worked there means that the organisation only collects material from before 1799 if there is a strong association to individuals such as Faraday, Humphry Davy or Count Rumford, she explained. “Whilst the books selected for auction have significant scientific heritage, if they were to come on to the market today or be offered to the Royal Institution as a gift, the Royal Institution would choose not to acquire them.”

The auction is a “one-off sale of a small selection of books”, she continued. “This sale forms part of a wider approach taken by the Royal Institution trustees to secure a long-term sustainable financial future.” The auction will take place at Christie’s in London on 1 December.


Richard Lea

The GuardianTramp

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