Update: The 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo sold for $17,500.
What you see: A passport photograph of Albert Einstein, signed and dated May 30, 1935, along with a piece of paper signed and dated by Einstein and featuring a brief goodbye note in German from Einstein’s son-in-law, Dmitri Marianoff. Bonhams estimates it at $8,000 to $12,000.
Who was Albert Einstein? He was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He came up with the theory of relativity, which upended the fields of theoretical physics and astronomy. He also composed the formula E = mc2 [energy equals mass times the speed of light, squared], which has come to symbolize science and, to some extent, genius itself. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work in theoretical physics. After Hitler and the Nazis took over Germany, Einstein, who was Jewish, settled in the United States, gaining citizenship in 1940. A 1939 letter he sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sparked the creation of the Manhattan Project, the scientific endeavor that led to nuclear weapons. He based himself in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died in 1955 at the age of 76.
The expert: Ian Ehling, director of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.
Has anything else Einstein-related come to auction that’s similar to this passport photo? Have you seen any other 1930s passports or immigration paperwork connected to Einstein? Not that I know of. I’ve only come across a Swiss passport of his dating back to 1923. This particular photo was always in the possession of the consigner. The way it was was in the 1930s, Einstein was already in the United States. He was working in Princeton, New Jersey, and he decided not to return to Germany. In order to apply for citizenship, you had to be outside the country. So he took his family on a trip to Bermuda and got the ball rolling there. He used a different image on his passport. After Bermuda, I think they came through Ellis Island in New York and turned in their paperwork.
How does the fact that the passport photo dates to the 1930s–when the Nazi regime was imposing anti-Semitic policies on its citizens, convincing Einstein to leave–add to its value? It’s a huge factor in its value. [The choice that the passport photo represents] is just an awesome moment to witness. It was a turning point–a man of the world applying for U.S. citizenship. It represents the very first step [toward that]. This is a very close witness to things that were on his mind at the time.
And he would have sat for the photo in Bermuda? Yes. You can’t tell, but he’s wearing a leather jacket in the photo. In the formal portrait on the paperwork, he’s wearing something else.
Wait, was Einstein wearing THE leather jacket in this photo? The one that Levi Strauss & Co won at Christie’s London in 2016 for $147,000? It’s a leather jacket, but we can’t see enough to say it’s THE leather jacket.
And this is fresh to market? Yes. It comes directly from the person who received it. She was a little girl [at the time], the granddaughter of the innkeeper [at the guest house where Einstein stayed in Bermuda]. She was 13 years old, and she was curious. She engaged Einstein in conversation. He signed and dated the photo and gave it to her, and she kept it all her life. She’s in her nineties now, and she’s decided to sell. I don’t think it was ever published or anything like that.
How did you arrive at an estimate for this? It’s a gut feeling. I feel the photo is incredibly important. It reflects on him becoming a U.S. citizen. The estimate reflects its historic significance.
How have you seen the market for Einstein material change over time? In the 1930s, he was already famous. The photo definitely had value back then. But the Einstein market has changed significantly. I can’t say Einstein items are rare. He would get lots of letters, and he spent a good deal of time every day answering them. The most significant ones are the manuscripts where he talks about scientific things, and certain items that he owned. For example, he was very interested in music and performing with friends; we sold his violin in March 2018 for $516,500. The passport photo is a more iconic thing. Einstein was at a turning point in his life, deciding to become a U.S. citizen. It’s signed and dated, and it shows him the way you expect him to look like. He didn’t get a haircut before the picture was taken.
Why is Einstein the most sought-after scientist at auction? He had the most brilliant mind in physics since Newton, and on top of that, he was not a nerdy scientist. He was incredibly approachable. He didn’t just follow scientific interests. He played the violin, he went sailing, he was someone who enjoyed life.
Why will this Einstein passport photograph stick in your memory? The personal connection. It shows him being open and approachable and talking to a 13-year-old girl in Bermuda. And it’s consigned directly by that person. It’s special. It’s two degrees of separation–the consigner, and then Einstein. That’s what makes it so beautiful and significant.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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