The 1687 first of Isaac Newton’s …Principia Mathematica sold by Christie’s at £540,000 contains numerous woodcut diagrams, but seen here is a spread that features a folding engraved plate depicting a cometary orbit.

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Right at the top of the list was a 1687, first issue copy of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

This is a book that is described as “the greatest work in the history of science” in that much quoted reference work by John Carter, Printing and the Mind of Man, and one that was reckoned by Albert Einstein to present “…perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make”.

It is a work that elucidates the laws of gravitation and motion that lay behind phenomena described by Newton’s predecessors, Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, and much more besides – but most importantly, it sets forth the law of universal gravitation and its unifying role in the cosmos.

For the first time a single mathematical law could explain the motion of objects on earth as well as the phenomena of the heavens.

It was the astronomer Sir Edmund Halley who encouraged Newton to write the …Principia Mathematica and he who saw the work through the press, even bearing the cost of printing himself when the Royal Society’s funds proved inadequate.

Showing some minor spotting and staining and in a re-backed and restored, but contemporary binding of panelled calf, the copy at Christie’s in the July 13 sale just edged past the high estimate to sell for £540,000.


A particularly striking folding plate from an uncoloured, 1613 first issue copy of Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis, a pictorial record of the greatest German garden of its time – that of the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt, Johann Conrad von Gemmingen. It was at Willibaldsburg Castle that he created eight separate gardens, each with its own dedicated gardeners and each filled with flowers from a different country. This example of the work sold a little under estimate at £220,000 at Christie's, but coloured copies have made considerably more.

Another Neptune

Noted in ATG No 2550 was a copy of the Atlantic Neptune… of Joseph FW des Barres, a monumental, four volume collection of charts, plans and views, along with other illustrations, that was published, no expense spared, at the order of the Admiralty in the years 1774-79 and intended for use by the Royal Navy.

An ex-Streeter Library copy, that one was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $800,000 (then £635,000), and in this more recent King Street sale a high-estimate bid of £500,000 secured another.

No two copies contain precisely the same charts, said Christie’s of its example, as they were compiled on a bespoke basis, principally for naval captains or merchant mariners.

This latest example was identified as a copy from the library of the Dukes of Northumberland that sold for £40,000 at Sotheby’s in 1978, but auction records appear to indicate that it made another appearance at auction in 2000, at Sotheby’s New York, when the price was $320,000.

Maths adds value

Dating from the late 15th century and of Italian origin, a manuscript collection of five mathematical texts described as a “vanishingly rare testament to the foundations of modern mathematics” with a distinguished provenance, sold at £280,000.

One of the more significant of those works presents features the Liber Abaci of an Italian mathematician known as Leonardo Bonacci of Pisa, and or simply as Fibonacci, who is considered one of the great mathematicians of the Middle Ages and a figure whose impact on Western understanding of the subject has been rated incalculable.

Quirk of evolution

Very much the surprise package, selling at £250,000 rather than £10,000-20,000, was an offprint from an 1858 issue of the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society.

Completely unopened in the original and still well preserved printed pink wrappers, this was Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s first printed exposition of the theory of evolution of natural selection, issued as ‘On the Tendency of Species to for Varieties’.

Due to the publishing quirks of the Linnean Society, it seems, the paper was available in five different forms, but all were printed from the same setting of the type.

Besides the author’s offprints, there were four forms of the Journal: separate parts were issued under the Zoology section (the present lot), the Botany section (green wrappers), or both together (in blue wrappers).