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Going once…a first edition of Copernicus’s magnum opus


By Jon Cartwright

Most of you will never have raised an arm at Christie’s auction house. But, if you’re partial to the odd extravagance, there’s a first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (“On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres”) up for grabs. It’ll probably cost you around a million dollars.

Bidding for the 1543 volume starts on 17 June, and I expect it will end up in the vault of some blasé collector. No-one will ever read it, but then it is in Latin, and who understands that these days? Nil desperandum, though, that’s what I like to say.

Still, I know of least one physicist who would love to get his hands on it. Owen Gingerich, a historian of astronomy from Harvard University, has spent years tracing copies of Copernicus’s masterpiece, partly as an exercise for a book he wrote in 2004. A first edition would be the darling possession on his mantelpiece. “There aren’t that many copies in private hands these days,” he lamented on the phone to me a few moments ago.

Nowadays Gingerich finds solace in a second-edition. Although considerably less valuable, it does have annotations by Rheticus, the young mathematician who persuaded Copernicus to publish his radical ideas. Gingerich did get the opportunity a few years ago to buy a bona-fide first edition for $50,000, which would have been a good investment but which unfortunately would have required him to re-mortgage his house.

Will Gingerich put in a bid at Christie’s this time round? “I figure that even if I had it I’d have to rent a bank safety deposit box to keep it in,” he says. “So I’ll give it a pass.”

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One comment to Going once…a first edition of Copernicus’s magnum opus

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