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This was the work in which he described and illustrated for the first time the astronomical discoveries he had made using a telescope – one that he had built himself after hearing of Hans Lipperhey’s invention of a device for making distant objects appear closer.

Galileo eventually built a telescope that offered 30x magnification, sufficient to reveal that the moon was mountainous, that the Milky Way comprised congeries (collections) of separate stars and that Jupiter had four satellites. The latter he diplomatically named the ‘Medicean Stars’ in honour of Cosimo II de’ Medici.

Some of his discoveries overturned Aristotelian and Ptolemaic teachings and, more dangerously, those of the church – though he was careful not to express his private views on the heliocentric theories of Copernicus in this work.

Recognised as of huge importance and significance at the time, this work was declared by Sir Henry Wotton, British ambassador in Venice at the time, to have “overthrown all former astronomy”.

Galileo auction stars

It was only on July 13 of last year that another example of this great rarity was bid to £260,000, when Christie’s sold the first portion of the scientific library of Giancarlo Beltrame. But the record remains with a copy that made its first starring appearance at auction in 1998.

Part of the magnificent Haskell F Norman library on science and medicine, it was one bound in contemporary limp vellum with a work by Marko Dominis, Archbishop of Split.

In offering a theoretical explanation of the telescope, the Dominis work mistakenly led to the belief that Galileo, not Lipperhey, had invented it. It also made an early attempt at describing the manner with which rainbows are formed.

Dominis, like Galileo, fell foul of the Inquisition, though for his heretical views on Christian unity rather than scientific ones.

In 1998 that appealing Norman copy sold for $350,000 (then £213,500), but in December 2010 it was bid to $550,000 (then £352,765) as part of the Beautiful Evidence sale, offering an unusually diverse collection formed by Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of statistical, political and computer science at Yale and a writer on information design.