The World's Most Valuable Scientific Manuscripts

Occasionally, the world's rarest scientific books manuscripts are auctioned, and the prices paid can be eye-popping.
Marcia Wendorf

If you've got a spare half-million dollars lying around, you might be the person who bought Isaac Newton's never-before-published notes on the Egyptian pyramids. They were sold by Sotheby's auction house on December 8, 2020 for nearly $500,000 (£378,000).

The notes are thought to have been written during the 1680s while Newton was living at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, UK, and it's believed that they weren't discovered until 200 years after Newton's death in the 1880s. While Newton was hard at work on the notes, his dog Diamond jumped up onto his desk and overturned a candle, burning the notes on their ends.

The search for the "royal cubit"

The notes show Newton trying to decipher the unit of measurement called the "royal cubit". It was a measurement commonly used by the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians. Newton thought that if he could discover that unit, he could determine the exact size of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Newton thought knowing the size of the temple would unlock the secrets of the universe.


If the sale of Newton's notes has made you curious about the rarest and most expensive scientific manuscripts and books ever to be sold, we've got you covered.

10. The Portolan Atlas of the World by Battista Agnese — $2,770,500

Portolan Atlas
The Portolan Atlas Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia

Battista Agnese (c. 1500 - 1564) was a Genoese cartographer who worked in the Venetian Republic. Agnese charted the expeditions of two explorers: Marcos de Niza, who came to the Americas in 1531, first to Peru, then Guatemala and Mexico, and finally to an area thought to be in today's Arizona or New Mexico. 

Agnese also charted the explorations of Francisco de Ulloa, who explored the west coast of what is today Mexico, especially the Baja California Peninsula. It is thought that Agnese and his workshop apprentices produced just 72 copies of the Portolan Atlas around the year 1546.

9. The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis — $2,882,500

The North American Indian
The North American Indian Source: Knight Library/YouTube

Produced between 1907 and 1930, the North American Indian is an unmatched record of America's First Peoples. It was also one of the most expensive books ever to be published, and only 40 volumes were produced.

The North American Indian
The North American Indian Source: Knight Library/YouTube

The work has been described by the author and critic D. Coleman as "an absolutely unmatched masterpiece of visual anthropology, and one of the most thorough, extensive, and profound photographic works of all time."

Other sets of the North American Indian have sold for $1,440,000 in October 2012 and $1,048,000 in October 2007, both were sold at Swan Galleries.

8. Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton — $3,719,500

Principia Mathematica
Principia Mathematica Source: Zhaladshar/Wikimedia

Albert Einstein described Newton's towering work as, "perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make." Along with Newton's Opticks, the Principia Mathematica ushered in the modern scientific era with its mathematical explanations of both gravity and motion. For the Principia Mathematica, Newton was knighted in 1705 by English Queen Anne.

Page from the Principia Mathematica
Page from the Principia Mathematica Source: Wikimedia

The first printing of the Principia Mathematica, which was written in Latin, consisted of 300 to 400 copies. Today, around 150 copies are still known to exist. Besides this copy, which was sold in December 2016 at Christie's New York, only one other copy has been sold at auction over the last 50 years. That was a presentation copy given to England's King James II, which was sold by Christie's New York in December 2013 for $2,517,000.

An original manuscript of the Principia Mathematica which contains Newton's handwritten corrections and notes is considered the greatest treasure held by England's Royal Society.

7. Cosmographia by Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) — $3,966,804

Cosmographia Source: National Library of Poland/Wikimedia

Sold by Sotheby's London in October 2006, this work was printed in 1477, but was actually created by Ptolemy in 150 CE. Claudius Ptolemy (100 - 170 CE) was a Greco-Egyptian writer, mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and astrologer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. He based the Cosmographia on the writings of earlier Roman and Persian writers.

When it was published in 1477, the Cosmographia became the world's first printed atlas. Today, only 31 copies are known to exist, and only two are in private hands. Christopher Columbus used this map on his voyage of discovery to the New World.

The copy that was sold in 2006 came from the sale of the library of Lord Wardlington, who described atlases as "... works of art in the technique of engraving, having as they do elaborate decoration of many kinds, and magnificent calligraphy..."

6. Traité des Arbres Fruitiers by Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau — $4,500,000

Peaches Source: Raw Pixel

After obtaining his law degree, Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700 - 1782) went on to study plants at the Jardin des Plantes. He made his name by discovering the fungus that was destroying saffron crops, and he next turned his attention to trees, especially fruit trees.

Cherries Source: New York Public Library

In 1731, du Monceau was appointed Inspector General of the French Navy, where he put his expertise to work on growing trees that would make the best boats and to rope making. Du Monceau's opinions on "division of labor" may have inspired Adam Smith to write his 1776 treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

5. Les Liliacées by Pierre-Joseph Redouté — $5,500,000

Source: Pierre-Joseph Redoute/Wikimedia

Les Liliacées was created between 1805 and 1816 by the renowned French botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Redouté had been an official court artist of French Queen Marie Antoinette, she of "let them eat cake" fame. Redouté was known for his watercolor paintings of flowers, and flowers were a great love of Emperor Napoleon's first wife, Empress Josephine.

She set Redouté to work producing Les Liliacées, which contains 486 scientifically accurate plates of flowers grown in the gardens of the Empress's residences of Malmaison, St. Cloud, and the palace of Versailles. Comprised of 16 volumes, the set weighs 320 pounds, and while Redouté hoped to publish 40 copies, only 18 were actually published.

Roses Source: Pierre-Joseph Redoute/Wikimedia

In an auction in November 1985 at Sotheby's New York, Empress Josephine's personal copy of Les Liliacées was sold for $5,500,000 to a syndicate headed by rare book dealer W. Graham Arader. Les Liliacées can be seen in its entirety at the New York Public Library's Digital Collection and at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

4. Letter from Francis Crick to his son — $6,059,750

Francis Crick letter to his son
Francis Crick's letter to his son

The letter was written on March 15, 1953 by Francis Crick (1916 - 2004) who at the time was working at Cambridge University along with American biologist James Watson to decode the structure of the building block of life — deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.

DNA's double helix
DNA's double helix Source: Vcpmartin/Wikimedia

Extending on the pioneering work of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick announced on February 28, 1953, that they had elucidated DNA's incredible double helix structure. Watson and Crick published two papers on the structure of DNA in the journal Nature in April and May, 1953.

Crick's letter to his twelve-year-old son Michael dated March 15, 1957, preceded the official announcement and it reads in part:
"Dear Michael, Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery. We have built a model for the structure of des-oxy-ribose-nucleic-acid (read it carefully) called D.N.A. You may remember that the genes of the chromosomes — which carry the hereditary factors — are made up of protein and D.N.A. Our structure is very beautiful."

". . . Now we have two of these chains winding round each other - each one is a helix - and the chain, made up of sugar and phosphorus, is on the outside, and the bases are all on the inside.  . . .  If you are given one set of letters you can write down the others. Now we believe that the D.N.A. is a code. That is, the order of the bases (the letters) makes one gene different from another gene (just as one page of print is different from another).

"You can now see how Nature makes copies of the genes. Because if the two chains unwind into two separate chains, and if each chain then makes another chain come together on it, then because A always goes with T, and G with C, we shall get two copies where we had one before. In other words we think we have found the basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life."

3. The Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein — $6,500,000

Einstein's writings
Einstein's writings Source: Wikimedia

Einstein originally wrote his famous Theory of Relativity during his "miracle year" of 1905, but he rewrote it in 1943 in order to raise funds for the American war effort during World War II.

In 1944, that manuscript was auctioned by the Kansas City Women's Club and purchased for $6.5 million by the Kansas City Life Insurance Company, who went on to donate the manuscript to the Library of Congress.

2. The Birds of America by John Audobon — $11,570,496

The Birds of America
The Birds of America Source: John Audobon/Wikimedia

There are 120 existing copies of this work in various formats, with 107 of them owned by institutions, and 13 in private collections. In December 2010, The Economist  magazine estimated that five of the 10 highest prices ever paid for printed material were for copies of The Birds of America.

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl Source: Raw Pixel

The Birds of America was written and illustrated by naturalist John James Audubon, who began his project to record all of America's birds around 1820, when he was 35-years-old. Audubon created images of the birds not by bird watching, but by shooting the birds, then creating an ingenious system of wires and strings that allowed the birds to be staged in natural-looking poses.

Instead of using the most common medium of oil paint, Audobon used watercolors, crayons, pencil, charcoal, chalk and ink, and each of the 435 drawings was engraved on a copper engraving sheet and then hand-colored. The so-called "elephant edition" was a whopping 39 by 26 inches (99 cm by 66 cm) in size. Audobon had a smaller and more affordable edition made which was called the "Royal Octavo" edition.

The text accompanying each drawing was written by Audubon and by the Scottish naturalist and ornithologist William MacGillivrayThe Birds of America contains up to six birds that are now extinct: the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck, great auk, pinnated grouse, and, possibly, the Eskimo curlew.

Today, the full 8-volume, elephant edition is on public display at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. All 435 plates can be viewed online at websites provided by the University of Michigan and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

In March 2000, the Fox-Bute copy of The Birds of America was purchased at Christie's, New York by Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar for $8.8 million. In December 2005, an unbound copy known as the Providence Athenaeum Set also sold at Christie's, New York, for $5.6 million.

On December 6, 2010, a first edition was sold at Sotheby's, London for $11.5 million (£7,321,250) to London art dealer Michael Tollemache. In June 2018, another first edition was sold at Christie's, New York by the heirs of the Fourth Duke of Portland for $9.8 million to an anonymous American collector. It was this sale that flushed out the previously unknown 120th copy of Audubon's work.

In December 2019, a copy of The Birds of America that had originally been owned by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and the Deerfield Academy was purchased for $6.6 million.

1. Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci — $30,802,500

Codex Leicester
Codex Leicester Source: Leonardo da Vinci/Wikimedia

This 72-page document by Leonardo da Vinci is comprised of 18 sheets of paper, each folded in half and covered on both sides with Leonardo's characteristic mirror writing. The Codex Leicester also includes many drawings and diagrams made by da Vinci.

Self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci
Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci Source: Royal Library Turin/Wikimedia

The Codex Leicester got its name from a previous owner, Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, who owned the manuscript from 1719 to 1759, and whose family owned it until 1980. It was then bought by American financier Armand Hammer, who owned it from 1980 until 1990, and whose family owned it until it was purchased in 1994.

The main topic of the Codex Leicester is the movement of water. In it, da Vinci wrote about the flow of water in rivers, and how that flow is affected by obstacles. Based on his observations, da Vinci made recommendations for designing bridges and for combating erosion. The codex also contains da Vinci's explanation of why the fossils of sea creatures are found on top of mountains. He correctly concluded that at one time, the mountains must have been at the bottom of seas, and then been lifted up. This, mind you, is hundreds of years before the theory of plate tectonics was ever considered.

On November 11, 1994, at Christie's auction house in New York City, Microsoft founder Bill Gates bought the Codex Leicester for $30,802,500, however, Gates has never renamed the codex after himself. Gates had each page of the codex scanned into digital images, some of which appeared as screen savers and wallpapers in Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows ME. In 1997, a comprehensive CD-ROM of the codex was released by the image company Corbis.

Today, each page of the Codex Leicester is mounted between panes of glass, and it frequently goes on display in various cities around the world. In 2006, one page of the Codex was part of an exhibit entitled, "Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius" at Seattle's Museum of Flight.  To honor the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, the Codex Leicester was on display from October 29, 2018 to January 20, 2019 at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is regarded by many as the most diversely talented human ever to have lived. He is known as one of history's greatest painter, inventor, engineer, architect, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, botanist, and cartographer.

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