Andreas Vesalius’ own, heavily annotated copy of the second edition of his magnum opus, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1555), the greatest anatomical atlas of the Renaissance and a masterpiece of medical science sold for a record $1.8m (£1.42m) at Christie’s New York.

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A new auction record was set for a medical book – and probably for any book sold in a timed online only auction – on February 2 when a second edition of Andreas Veaslius’s landmark illustrated anatomical book De humani corporis fabrica (1555) sold for more than double its low estimate at $1.8m (£1.42m) hammer at Christie’s New York (26/20/14.5% buyer’s premium).

The previous auction record for a medical book had stood since 1998 when the only known fully hand-coloured copy of a first edition of the same work printed in 1543 realised $1.65m (including premium), also at Christie’s New York, as part of the Haskell F Norman Library of Science and Medicine.

De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (‘On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books’) by the Belgian physician Andries van Wesele, better known as Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), is regarded as the most important Renaissance anatomy book; but what made this particular copy so valuable?

It was not a first edition, nor hand-coloured, and was actually missing pages, including a few text leaves and the whole index.

The answer lies in the extensive manuscript ink annotations throughout this second edition which are in Vesalius’ own hand and reveal his ideas for a revised and updated third edition which was never published.

This unique annotated copy containing over a thousand annotations, corrections, and editorial notes shows Vesalius’ latest understanding of human anatomy based on dissection, and demonstrates that he was continuing his research up to the time of his death.

“Vesalius burned nearly all of his manuscripts before he left Padua to work for the Holy Roman Empire”, says Christie’s specialist Rhiannon Knol, “so all manuscript material by him is very rare.”

This copy came to light relatively recently in 2007 when it appeared at auction in Germany and sold then for €15,840 (including premium).

Seventeen years later the pre-sale publicity helped this copy sell for more than 100 times that price.

The winning bid was made jointly by the Flemish Community together with Belgium’s oldest university KU Leuven, which issued a press release announcing and outlining their plans to exhibit the book and digitise its contents to make the whole work available to the public.

Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon said: “It is fabulous news that the Fabrica by Vesalius is coming home to Flanders … It is a source of inspiration for the many young students that are following in the footsteps of Vesalius even today.”

Scientific pioneer


This extensively annotated first edition of Euclid’s Elementa geometriae (1482) achieved a hammer price of $320,000 (£252,800) at Christie’s New York.

Another important annotated scientific book in the sale was a first edition of Euclid’s Elementa geometriae, printed in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt in 1482, a book which has been described as “the oldest textbook in the history of science” (Norman).

The extensive marginal annotations were made by at least two different readers who engaged with some of the more complex Euclidian mathematics.

This book, in a contemporary German binding, sold above the low estimate at $320,000 (£252,800) hammer, the second highest auction record, which has been bettered only by a copy sold at Sotheby’s in 2001 for $511,750 (including premium) which was described at the time as “one of the largest and freshest copies known”.

Moving to the 17th century, the Blenheim Palace copy of the first edition of Pierre de Fermat’s Varia opera mathematica (1679), sold for $45,000 (£35,550) hammer (estimate $40,000-60,000).

This copy included the uncommon engraved portrait of Fermat which is often missing.

This ground-breaking work by the brilliant mathematician Fermat is the foundation of number theory, the discovery (with Pascal) of probability theory, and the discovery of differential calculus, which would be worked on later by Newton and Leibniz.

An important 20th century scientific discovery was announced by Francis Crick and James Watson in the journal Nature in 1953 which described the double-helix structure of DNA. An original offprint of the article from this journal sold for $24,000 (£18,960) (guide $7000- 10,000). It had been owned by Leonard Hamilton, a close friend of Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. It was noted that Hamilton had supplied the DNA specimens for Wilkins’ lab to photograph.

Shakespeare highlights

The sale also featured important works of early English literature from the library of the late Dr K William Harter.

Notable highlights were a Second Folio (1632), and a Fourth Folio (1685) of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies.

The Second Folio, with a supplied portrait and bound in the early 20th century in red morocco by Riviere & Son, sold just above the low estimate at $220,000 (£173,800).

The Fourth Folio in a rebacked contemporary calf binding sold on the reserve at $70,000 (£55,300).


This quarto edition of Shakespeare’s play The Historie of Henry the Fourth was published in 1639, and no other copy of this edition had appeared at auction since 1977, nor any copy of an earlier quarto edition since 1948. It sold for $48,000 (£37,920) at Christie’s New York.

A much rarer Shakespeare printing was a 1639 quarto edition of Shakespeare’s Historie of Henry the Fourth. This play was first published in 1598. However, that and other early quarto editions of this play are now almost all in institutions.

Christie’s stated it had been “unable to trace any other copy [of the 1639 quarto] at auction since 1977, nor any copy of an earlier quarto edition since 1948”.

This volume estimated at $20,000-30,000 sold above the high estimate at a record price of $48,000 (£37,920) hammer.


The Bradley Martin copy of the first edition of both parts of Edmund Spenser’s great Tudor epic, The Faerie Queene, which is dedicated to Elizabeth I, fetched a new auction record of $48,000 (£37,920) at Christie’s New York.

An auction record was also set for Dr Harter’s copy of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1596), which had previously been owned by the celebrated bibliophile H Bradley Martin and had last sold at auction in 1990.

Estimated at $30,000-50,000 the copy sold for close to the top estimate at a record $48,000 (£37,920) hammer.

In summary the sale realised a hammer total of $3.7m (£2.92m), which was $1m above its pre-sale low estimate of $2.7m and with 81% of the 218 lots sold.