Dated July 13, a document of 1720 that for the rest of his life Sir Isaac Newton bitterly regretted signing was sold in a Connecticut auction of May 6 for $85,000 (£69,105).
The top lot in the University Archives (25% buyer’s premium) sale was a costly reminder of the ‘South Sea Bubble’ disaster and the speculative mania that effectively ruined so many British investors in that year.
Founded in 1711, to trade with Spanish America, the grandly titled ‘Company of Merchants of Great Britain Trading to the South Seas, and other Parts of America, and for Encouraging Fishery’ had noble pretensions but its main business at the time was slave-trading.
It is recorded that Newton, when once asked his opinion of the prospect of South Seas stock, replied that he could calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people.
Newton had nevertheless signed up for the great enterprise, but at one stage liquidated his original investment of £7000 to reap a solid 100% profit. He had been well advised, for the stock price decreased shortly thereafter.
But then the company rallied and speculation again became rampant and many investors, Newton among them, were lured back into the market. Stock prices at first soared but by September 1720 the market had collapsed and shares dragged down government stocks with them.
Newton lost £20,000.
Also in this sale was a 1929 letter from Albert Einstein to a very close friend, Michele Besso, in which he announced the completion of his United Field Theory. Einstein told him “I have been brooding and calculating almost all of my days and half of the nights”. It sold at $32,500 (£26,425).
In that work he attempted to unify his Special Theory of Relativity with Gravitational Theory in a single so-called ‘Theory of Everything’, and that of course was what made this remarkable letter so important and valuable.
In an enthusiastic, almost chatty letter Einstein also touches on other matters and had preceded his announcement of the great work with something very different.
“With great excitement and joy, I am reading a book on Socialism by B. Shaw [probably The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, said the cataloguer], a truly splendid chap with great insights into human activities. I will try to promote it a bit.
“However, the very best thing, on which I have worked for days and half the nights, speculating and making calculations, is now completed and lying in front of me, compressed into seven pages, with the title ‘Unified Field Theory’.”