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

Copernicus%20book.jpg

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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