Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein were among those who made up the cast list of On the Shoulders of Giants, an exceptional online auction that ended on November 8.
It was, however, personal items from the estate of Stephen Hawking, who died earlier this year, that contributed most to the premium-inclusive total of £1.82m raised at Christie’s (25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) by this unusual, 52-lot sale.
Hawking’s family, faced with liability for inheritance tax, are hoping to offer his scientific archive and the contents of his office to the nation though the Acceptance in Lieu process, and the results achieved in this sale of other personal items will only have underlined the potential value of that archive.
The 22 Hawking family lots raised £1.38m in all – seven times the predicted sum – and the star turn was one of the five known copies of his Cambridge PhD thesis of 1965, ‘Properties of Expanding Universes’.
Showing a number of autograph corrections, it is signed in two places and inscribed “This dissertation is my original work”. It made £480,000.
Estimated at £2000-3000 but sold for £55,000 was a 1988, first American edition of A Brief History of Time… that had been that had been ‘signed’ with an authorial thumbprint on the front free endpaper (shown above).
Further ‘surprise’ highlights, both estimated at £10,000-15,000 but sold for £240,000 apiece, were a lot that offered Hawking’s medals and awards and one of his iconic wheelchairs.
Made in England by BEC Mobility around 1988, the latter was the earliest surviving example of the series of chairs that he was obliged to use for much of his life and was being sold to benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
Hawking’s rather mischievous attitude to piloting his wheelchair became legendary and having run over Prince Charles’ toes during a meeting in 1977, he is said to have regretted not doing the same to Margaret Thatcher.
It was also said that those who annoyed him found themselves a target, an allegation to which he responded with wit and humour: “A malicious rumour. I’ll run over anyone who repeats it.”
Newton and Darwin
Among the Newton lots was a manuscript containing his notes on and extracts from the Turba philosophorum, or ‘Assembly of Philosophers’, a Latin translation of an influential Arabic anthology of pre-medieval alchemical texts. A lot that was first seen at auction in the 1930s and again in 2004, it was this time sold for £80,000.
A letter of 1876 in which Charles Darwin makes what at the time was a rare use of the term “natural selection” sold at £40,000.
Darwin preferred to speak of “descent with modification”, but in this letter to Henry Moseley, a naturalist who had served on the HMS Challenger scientific voyage, the new term was prompted by a remark made by the chief scientist on that expedition, Charles Wyville Thomson.
In a recent introductory lecture to the natural history class at the University of Edinburgh, Thomson had claimed that natural selection did not provide sufficient support for the hypothesis of evolution.
All of the lots mentioned above, and others besides, were acquired by the same Chinese private buyer for his Gansu Tianqing Museum.