A Lobby Card from Tod Browning’s “Freaks” Could Fetch $20,000 at Heritage Auctions

A lobby card from the 1932 MGM film Freaks that depicts actress Olga Baclanova and little person Harry Earles.

What you see: An 11-inch-by-14-inch lobby card from the 1932 film Freaks. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $10,000 to $20,000.

The expert: Grey Smith, director of vintage movie poster auctions at Heritage Auctions.

How much 1932 promotional material from Freaks—lobby cards, posters, or otherwise—survives? Is it scarcer than promotional material made for other movies of its era? That period of the early 1930s is really a tough era to find significant posters from. Why is anyone’s guess. Freaks is as scarce as other horror films of the era. It had a very truncated release. The studio came under such criticism that it was pulled. Not a lot of paper [lobby cards, posters, etc.] got into the distribution chain. American paper, like this card, is scarce.

Did the studio deliberately destroy the posters and other materials it made to promote Freaks? That is unknown. I suspect, and this is purely a suggestion, when they pulled it, they trashed the paper.

But was it a “kill it with fire” trashing or more of a “don’t wanna pay rent on a warehouse to store leftover posters from this loser of a film” thing? It was probably a little bit of everything. My guess is when the film came under such scrutiny, perhaps they destroyed a lot of it. [Maybe the studio thought] “We can’t do anything with this property, let’s shelve it and move on.” The film sat on a shelf for 20 years. The other horror titles were so immensely popular, they used the paper up. It just got obliterated [from wear.] With Freaks, it was a different issue. They must have decided to destroy a lot of it. Why would they want 5,000 Freaks one-sheets sitting on shelves? They realized they’d had a lapse of better taste, and they had to shelve the movie pretty quickly. It’s really quite amazing to me that [the promotional material] did survive and get out to the public.

Could we talk a bit about how Freaks came about, how it was received, and how it became a cult classic? MGM decided it wanted to get on the gravy train that Universal was riding with Frankenstein and Dracula–‘Let’s produce our own horror films.’ Everybody suffered during the Depression, but what kept the doors open [at Universal] through the mid-1930s were horror films. Irving Thalberg went to Tod Browning, who was instrumental in getting Freaks made.

So MGM releases it, and what happens? I think people were really shocked to see human abnormalities on the screen. They titled it Freaks, but did people really expect to see people like that? I’m not sure they did.

Maybe it was the shift of frame? Until then, the public was used to seeing people billed as freaks in sideshows, inside tents. Maybe seeing them up on the silver screen, where they would normally see stars like Carole Lombard and Rudolph Valentino, was too much? The film did depict them in a sympathetic light, but also showed them as objects of ridicule. A number of people were offended. I suggest people thought, ‘Good heavens, in all decency, why depict [them] on screen?’ That’s why I believe it gained a cult following. It came out of the vault in the late 1940s and it was heavily screened and reviewed. There’s a huge fan base for it.

I haven’t seen the whole thing, but I’ve seen scenes, and read synopses of it, and I’m under the impression that Freaks is not a good movie–it had to include many different performers, and tried to string a bunch of vignettes into a plot… A lot of early sound films are sort of stage-bound–you don’t get really fluid camera movements. And I think the ending was tacked on. But you’re probably right. The characters are the story, essentially, and you’ve got a few bad people taking advantage of them. That’s the plot. People who saw it back in the day may have been shocked but thought, ‘What was that all about?’

Have people collected material from the original release of Freaks since the late 1940s, or did it start even earlier than that? Poster-collecting is rather a new hobby. If you were collecting paper in the 1950s, you were way ahead of the game. There was a lot of seeking-out of original posters for this film prior to the 1960s.

Is there a hierarchy of performers in Freaks–actors whose images collectors want more than the others? I think so, yes. The lobby cards [for Freaks] were an eight-card set. Two of them show groups of freaks. The title card, which is rare, depicts all the freaks. Those are the premium cards in the set. The card we have here, which shows a midget, is very desirable. It’s not what someone would call a “dead card.” A dead card in this set would be one without any freaks on it. It’s like having a Frankenstein lobby card without the monster on it. But it’s so scarce to find any cards from this title, it’s almost inconsequential.

A lobby card from the 1932 MGM film Freaks that depicts actress Olga Baclanova and little person Harry Earles.

This lobby card depicts Olga Baclanova and Harry Earles. What’s going on here? What scene is this? I haven’t watched the movie since I received this lobby card, and I don’t know where the scene falls in the film, but he’s wooing her and she’s reciprocating in a disingenuous manner. He’s just crazy about her. One of the lines on the poster is, “Can a Full Grown Woman Truly Love a Midget?

One thing that jumps out at me as I look at the image of the lobby card is it’s… not that freaky. This could be a kid having a fancy dress-up afternoon with his aunt rather than a little person having cocktails with a beautiful woman. Are the other images created to market Freaks equally tame? I don’t think so. There are other cards in the set that are more graphic.

Maybe the MGM marketing department included this to let theater owners gage their audience, and show tamer images if they felt that would better sell the movie? Maybe so. I will say these cards, other than the title card, are not as salacious as they could be. They probably didn’t want to have an image of the pinheads front and center. The late 1940s [re-release promotional material] is much more freak-related and more of an exploitation thing. MGM was the classy studio. There was nothing Poverty Row about it. I see it [material for Freaks, and ask myself] ‘What were they thinking?’ It’s so against the grain, so out of their wheelhouse. But MGM was powerful enough, and had enough money, that it could produce a number of different films. They could produce something off-the-wall and see if it stuck.

How many other copies of this Freaks lobby card exist? Do we know? There’s probably at least one or two other copies, maybe three.

I realize this is the first time this Freaks lobby card has appeared at Heritage Auctions, but is this the first time one has ever gone to auction? It looks like a copy of the card did sell in 2001 [at another auction house] for $4,250.

The lot notes describe the card as “very fine.” What does that mean? It means it’s really in quite nice shape. It essentially means there’s almost no tears, no nicks, no dings, no pinholes. The colors are bright. It’s a very strong grade.

Do we have any idea how the lobby card survived so well? I don’t. Stuff still comes to light. The Dracula title card and scare card [offered in this sale] came from a collector I didn’t know existed. He contacted me out of the blue. You just never know.

How did you arrive at the estimate of $10,000 to $20,000? Did you base it on results for other Freaks lobby cards? The thing is, we haven’t sold any lobby cards from Freaks for a while. It’s what it should be bringing. Have I overshot? Have I undershot? Who knows? Often, it’s really an educated guess. I cannot see the future.

As of July 10, the lobby card had received a bid of $5,000. Does that mean anything? No, it means absolutely nothing. The activity doesn’t begin until it goes to the block.

What’s the world auction record for a piece from Freaks? We sold an insert in March 2009 for $107,550. It does picture the freaks, and it shows Baclanova and Earles embracing. Above that is written out, “Freaks”. You can tell they’re freaks, but its not really so, so obvious. You don’t see the legless man or any of that. They’re done in caricature. [MGM] was pulling its punches to some degree.

What is the lobby card like in person? It’s really pretty. The photos are a true and accurate representation. It’s got a beautiful, soft, Technicolor look. It’s really quite gorgeous. That’s why I’ve always been in love with lobby cards. They’re really just beautiful.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? Anything from this title will stick in my memory. Anytime I get items that are scarce or rare sticks in my memory. I’m impressed they survived. And it’s fun to see things we’ve never sold before.

How to bid: The Freaks lobby card is lot #86165 in the Movie Posters Signature Auction that Heritage Auctions is holding on July 27 and 28, 2019.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Grey Smith has appeared on The Hot Bid twice before, talking about a unique Japanese movie poster for The Seven Samurai and a 1934 poster for the nudist film Children of the Sun.

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NEW RECORD! The 1935 Negro League Baseball Broadside That Featured 15 Hall of Famers Sold at Hake’s For (Scroll Down to See)

This page from the 1935 Negro League Baseball broadside shows the Homestead Grays.

Update: The 1935 Negro League baseball broadside sold for $8,850, which represents a new auction record for this collectible item.

What you see: A 1935 Negro League baseball broadside, picturing six of the eight active teams of the time. Hake’s Auctions estimates it at $10,000 to $20,000.

The expert: Philip Garry III, Hake’s sports consultant.

How rare is Negro League Baseball (NLB) material in general? I suspect less of it was made, and less of it was saved. Is that correct? Exactly. Before Major League Baseball (MLB) became integrated in 1947, it was very unusual to find any surviving examples of NLB material, whether it was game-used pieces, cards, postcards, scorecards, or broadsides. There was never a single NLB baseball card issued in the United States, as opposed to millions released for MLB up until 1947.

Who was the audience for this cardboard broadside? It was not for sale. It was not produced for public collectibility. The audience was local townspeople, and it tried to draw them to a game. If you’re in inner city Pittsburgh, walking down Main Street, and you pass a hardware store, it might have this in the window. Some were displayed outdoors, posted on trees. I guarantee this one was in a store, because it survived in such nice condition.

Josh Gibson's image from the 1935 Negro League Baseball broadside.
Josh Gibson

The lot notes call this “what we believe to be the finest surviving example of Negro League Baseball advertising ever produced.” Could you elaborate? What makes it so fine? Going back to 2014, I researched NLB collectibles in general for over a year. I looked for anything with picture images on it–scorecards, broadsides… I didn’t have a whole lot of luck with photographs being pictured for the most part, until 1940. Then the images start getting clearer. Complete images of players in 1935 is unprecedented.

The lot notes also say player images were rarely featured before 1935. Is that true of just NLB, or all forms of professional baseball in the U.S. then? The NLB. It didn’t have quite so much in the way of broadsides. Expense and cost probably played a part in it. In the NLB, money was always tight.

The first page of the 1935 Negro National League broadside shows group shots of six of the eight teams.

Six of the eight 1935 NLB teams are shown on this broadside. Is it possible to know why the Newark Dodgers and the Philly Stars are not pictured here? It seems extra-weird that the Stars appear in name only, considering they were the defending champions. My guess is they [the leaders of the NLB] planned to do something similar for all teams in the league, but for some reason, production stopped too quickly. To raise the money to print, they probably went to each team and said “Look, we’re going to promote all the teams, and the cost is $100 per team,” and six said “OK” and paid it. The other two, maybe, didn’t have the money or didn’t think it was worthwhile. So they’re represented, but there are no pictures.

And this having “Nashville Elite Giants” on the front implies this was probably meant for display somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee? Probably. Whether they made them for other teams, I don’t know.

The Chicago American Giants team from the 1935 Negro League Baseball broadside.

What accounts for the way the pages of player photos are composed? My guess is they extracted the players’ images from the team photo. It’s possible that the Philly Stars and the Newark Dodgers didn’t have a team photo.

So, it looks great, but what else makes the broadside extraordinary? A total of 15 of the players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, not counting the two teams who are not pictured. It has over 100 players [shown] on it. If any new [NLB] players get in the Hall of Fame, it will drive up the value further. The more superstars, the higher the value. Not only is the broadside worth a lot now, it has good investment potential for the future.

How many other copies of this broadside are known? My research shows three others have come up for auction. They are three different copies. You can see when they come up that the condition is different.

What’s the world auction record for this piece? The highest price I found was in 2010 at Heritage Auctions, which sold a copy for $6,572.50.

Cool Papa Bell's portrait from the 1935 Negro League Baseball broadside.
Cool Papa Bell

How did this particular copy manage to survive in such good condition? It was probably indoors instead of outdoors, and when the store owner was finished displaying it, he took it down and put it away, and it stayed in the building for who knows how long. Or, it went back to a team executive who took it back, and it stayed in a team archive for a while. Or, it went to a player. Executives’ and players’ estates are often the way this material comes to auction. That’s how a lot of it gets to the public.

Is there anything else out there among NLB collectibles that comes close to this broadside? There’s a 1924 Negro League World Series panoramic photo that shows 41 or 42 individual players and eight Hall of Famers. That’s the best I could find outside of this one.

The legendary Pittsburgh Crawfords, as shown in the 1935 Negro League Baseball broadside.

This broadside pictures the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, which the lot notes say might be the “finest baseball club of all time. black or white”. Could you talk a bit more about that? What makes the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords legendary? In early baseball, the pitcher and the catcher tend to be the most important from a fan viewpoint. The Crawfords put Satchel Paige on as a pitcher, and Josh Gibson as a catcher. Paige was the best, and Gibson was the best. Getting both made for a tremendously successful team. Then they had Oscar Charleston, who was one of the top two all-around NLB players ever. With Oscar, they had a dynasty. Add Cool Papa Bell and Judy Johnson, and you have five Hall of Famers on one team, all at the peak of their careers, except Charleston, who was on a slide.

What is the broadside like in person? It’s big. It’s 22 inches by 28 inches. A very imposing piece. The clarity is excellent, compared to team photos and other broadsides. The images are so good, you can identify all the people on there. The outer boundary edges and the corners are intact. There are no pieces missing, no chips. Toning [a brown discoloration] is minimal compared to other copies. It’s just a great item. If you’re going to have one piece, this is the one to have. It has so much going for it.

Satchel Paige's photograph from the 1935 Negro League Baseball broadside.
Satchel Paige

Why will this piece stick in your memory? I was at the 2010 auction at Heritage and saw that one in person, but this is the first I’ve handled. I was always a big fan of this piece. Besides its appeal to the NLB collector base, a lot of people collect Baseball Hall of Fame material. This will strongly appeal to them because there’s 15 Hall of Famers on it. And a few NLB guys appear in virtually no other photographs. If you’re looking for those guys, this might be your only chance, ever, to fill the hole in your collection.

How to bid: The 1935 NLB broadside is item 519 in Auction #227 at Hake’s Auctions. Bidding on this particular item ends on July 10, 2019.

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You can purchase Philip Garry III’s Negro Leagues Baseball collectibles guide on eBay.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Images are courtesy of Hake’s.

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RECORD! An Earnest-Gregory Dovetailed Goose Commands $810,000 and Several Auction Records at Copley

A full profile view of the record-setting Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: The Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose, a decoy that dates to circa 1870 and bears the name of two of its past owners as its creator is unknown. Copley Fine Art Auctions sold it in July 2018 for $810,000, setting a record for a goose decoy and a record for a decoy by an anonymous maker.

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Ok, I’m starting with what might be an impudent question. The decoy depicts a Canada goose. In the 21st century, I know these birds as pests. Why did hunters in the late 19th century go after them? Were they pests then, too? Did they eat them? Was it both? Geese are good table fare. There’s a lot of meat on each bird. They’re great sporting game and they’re fun to hunt. The modern frustrations with the geese are just that–trouble with residential geese. Historically, geese were held in high regard and decoy-makers held them in high regard. Top goose-makers had fun with the head positions. You get a tremendous amount of variation from top goose makers. Geese are still celebrated by sportsmen and hunters today.

The goose decoy is named in part for Adele Earnest, the collector who sourced it and its two sibling decoys in 1954. Did she leave any notes about how she discovered the trio? She mentioned that she got them in Columbia, Pennsylvania. If there were details, they weren’t particularly telling on who made them and what the circumstances were. The fact that she remembered the town and the year is above the standard then in terms of collecting. And in collecting communities, there’s a lot of confidentiality about where something is sourced. A lot of times, collectors don’t divulge all the details of their finds.

Have any other decoys by this anonymous maker turned up? There are three geese known by this maker. Adding to that are a number of shorebirds that have the dovetail construction. Some of them were found in Massachusetts, and some believe the geese are from Massachusetts because of the shorebird find. Not until they were X-rayed could we be sure they were made by the same maker. The intricate techniques and specific materials used in construction identify them as being by the same maker.

No one else uses dovetail construction on their decoys? The dovetail construction is virtually unseen in any other decoy.

The Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy, with its head removed from the neck slot to show the unusual dovetail construction.

And the trail on the trio of decoys is completely cold? They were made as tools, and as such, were not signed as works of art. As tools, their value sunk to almost zero when plastic decoys entered the field. Only when they were recontextualized as found art did they have value again. When they were tools without a job, no one kept notes. It’s not uncommon for decoys to lose their entire history. At this point, the trail is cold unless the history is contained within the objects themselves.

Collector Stewart Gregory bought two of the three decoys from Earnest. Where is the third? Number three is in the Jerry Lauren collection. He has the other one.

Why did Gregory buy only two of the three? We don’t know the specifics, but it is unusual for collectors to acquire duplicates, of geese especially. Gregory was actually breaking with collecting norms by acquiring two geese with the same head position. It’s a testimony to his incredible excitement. With duck decoys, you have hens and drakes. Sexual dimorphism encourages collecting them in pairs. Shorebirds are small enough to keep two or three together. The exception is to have two geese in identical form.

Adele Earnest said the trio of goose decoys prompted her “subsequent devotion to the decoy as an art.” Donal C. O’Brien Jr., who had dozens of elite decoys, considered this one “the finest bird in his collection,” and “the best of the two” Gregory geese. What makes this decoy so great? This decoy strikes me as a complete object, purely from a visual sense. It will satisfy you from 100 yards away and when you have it in your hand. As a complete work of art in craftsmanship, it leaves virtually no room for improvement. I would add that as a decoy, it has impeccable provenance, and what I consider a perfect amount of gunning wear.

Gunning wear means it was “shot over”? Hunters fired their guns over the decoy in pursuit of live birds? Yes. As a tool for attracting birds, it was used in the water. It was used and abused as any decoy would be over [hunting] seasons.

What can we infer about the maker of this decoy by looking at it? When I see a piece like this, I see an incredibly talented craftsman who has a few audiences. Number one is the birds he’s trying to attract. Number two is the customer. Number three is their own standards and the ideas they may have about creating objects that live up to the talents they’re endowed with and should share. Some of these makers had a work ethic that was tied to their religion. They felt they had a duty to make the best object they could with their hands. They see themselves as having god-given talents they’re obliged to use to the fullest. That’s the idea. It’s evidenced when you look at the parts that are not seen by the bird or the hunter.

Detail of the carved tail of the record-setting Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy.

You mean details that only show up on X-rays–a technology that did not exist when we think this decoy was made? I’ve looked at a thousand decoy X-rays. There’s a strong connection between the level of craftsmanship on the outside of the bird and the level of craftsmanship on the inside. There’s an almost perfect correlation, makers holding their own personal standards.

What other things can you tell about the maker? Looking at its surface alone, I can identify half a dozen different painting techniques, which is unusual for decoys. You’re looking at a competent, well-trained artisan who paints well. He doesn’t labor over it. And that’s just the paint. The hollow body is meticulously hollowed, and the decoy has one of the most sophisticated head-to-neck transitions of any decoy. It has a nice finish, which is more challenging, but also can be more rewarding to the viewer and [can] show the most competent craftsmen at work. You can sand out a lot of mistakes. This person left it clean and crisp because he got it right the first time. The competence of the carving has led people to believe or wonder if it was made by a professional carousel carver, but nobody has lined up a carousel carving with this particular bird.

And we can be confident that the anonymous 19th-century maker is male? It’s far outside of precedent to be a woman. There are no documented female carvers [from that era, but you have to] consider that it possibly could have been a female painter. There’s a lot of collaborative effort in decoys.

What is your favorite detail on this decoy? My favorite thing about the bird is its totality. There’s no other decoy as satisfying from so many perspectives as this one, to me. But it’s probably the way the bird is hollowed out very intricately by hand to create the most stable, lightweight, and durable decoy possible. He’s doing work that no one is going to see.

It’s only going to show up on an X-ray? Only you at Copley will see it? [Laughs] Yes. The only people who’ll see it are the people at Copley, the clients, and the people who come to my X-ray talks.

Does the dovetail base on this goose decoy offer the hunter an advantage? The dovetail joint from the neck into the body offers a great advantage to a hunter. It allows the hunter to take the bird apart and transport it much more easily, with less chance of breakage. It’s understood, from a collecting standpoint, that goose heads [on decoys] crack or break off entirely. This bird is of durable construction, with a removable head. That’s no small part of why it’s in the condition it’s in, and why it has an unbroken neck today.

Detail shot of the Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy to show the head in place, but slightly slid out of the dovetail join.

Were you surprised it sold for $810,000? It was not a surprise that it went at that level. It was worth every penny. In terms of records, this is the third-highest price for any decoy at auction. It’s also a record for any goose decoy at auction, and an auction record for any unknown [decoy] maker.

How long might this record stand? What else is out there that could beat it? There are several goose decoys that could break this number. The first to come to mind are by Elmer Crowell, one of which used to hold the world record for any decoy. Others sit very close to the top of the list. I see the high-end decoy market continuing to expand and grow. I expect a significant amount of turnover in price at the very top.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? This specific decoy, before I ever saw it, was my favorite in the entire field of American waterfowl. The more time I spent with it, the better it got. I was so fortunate to be part of offering it for sale.

What was it like to hold it in your hands? It was a little scary. Let me rephrase that–it made you very aware you were holding a tremendously valuable object. It was also very satisfying. It’s a commanding and engaging object. It could dominate any space you put it in. Those are traits that only the greatest objects I’ve handled have.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Images are courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Copley Fine Art Auctions will hold its Sporting Sale 2019 on July 25 at Hotel 1620 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Top lots include the Harmon “Dust Jacket” Plover trio, a group of shorebirds carved by Elmer Crowell, estimated at $730,000 to $1.1 million.

Colin McNair spoke to The Hot Bid in July 2018 about a preening black duck by Elmer Crowell from the same auction that ultimately sold for $600,000.

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Yes, I filed this story under “Quack” even though the decoy depicts a goose. #SorryNotSorry

SOLD! A First-edition Copernicus at Christie’s London Sold for (Scroll Down to See)

Detail shot of Copernicus's 1543 book, showing the sun at the center of the universe.

Update: The first-edition Copernicus sold for £587,250, or $734,569.

What you see: A 1543 copy of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, libri V [On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres], by Nicolaus Copernicus, the first scientific work to place the sun at the center of the heavens, rather than the Earth. Christie’s London estimates it at £500,000 to £700,000, or $633,000 to $886,200.

The expert: Barbara Scalvini, expert specialist in the book and manuscript department at Christie’s.

Do we know how many copies of this book were printed in 1543, and how many survive? By conjecture, we can get to between 400 and 500 copies printed of the first edition. 277 have been described, but we have lost some of those. There are about 250 we know of.

Who would have been the audience for this book in 1543? Universities? Yes, but universities would have been more fluid entities than we know now. The purchaser would have been an astronomer or a lecturer. The book would have traveled with the scholar. The audience would have been a specialized community of scientists devoted to astronomy, and astronomy was not what we intend it now to be. It was a lot to do with calendar-setting and what we’d now say are horoscope predictions. It wasn’t just observing celestial phenomena.

Can we tell, simply by looking at the finished book, how challenging it might have been to make? The book has 142 woodcut illustrations in it. You appreciate that the scientist had to draw these illustrations and the woodcutter had to reproduce them. A lot of precision was needed. Copernicus, at the time, was living in the very north of Poland, and his publisher was in Nuremberg, Germany, about 1,000 miles away. He didn’t have the chance to personally oversee [the book’s] production. He had to delegate production to a pupil, Georg Joachim Rheticus. Then Rheticus got another job at a university that was miles away, and Andreas Osiander was asked by the publisher to oversee the last bit.

Detail shot of Copernicus's landmark 1543 book, open to show one of its woodcut illustrations.

What challenges did Copernicus face in publishing this book? How did those challenges shape how he presented his information? It was the publisher’s skin at stake as much, if not more, than Copernicus. That has to get into the picture. Copernicus wrote a very diplomatic introduction that makes Osiander’s preface irrelevant. Another challenge, for example, was the patronage challenge.

Copernicus and the publisher sought funding from patrons? No. The aim was to get protection, not money, not advancement.

So, patronage in this case meant asking influential people not to aim their guns at this book? I think so. Copernicus was very clever [to say in his introduction] “It’s all for astronomers. It doesn’t question the prime mover or the God side of things, really. It’s going to be used by professionals so we can have a better calendar, and better predictions of the future, so you should be happy.” That probably means he was conscious that the content might raise eyebrows.

How real were the risks that Copernicus and his publisher faced? What consequences could have, or would have, followed if they hadn’t proceeded in the way that they did? Copernicus was a Catholic canon [a type of administrator within his local church], so he could have lost his position in the hierarchy. Dissemination of the book could have been impaired [by church censorship]. The idea that the earth was not the center of the universe had been mooted by others. The risks to his nice, quiet life as a Catholic canon were there, but it wasn’t the risk of prison that Galileo faced later.

What might be the title page of Copernicus's 1543 masterwork that place the sun at the center of the heavens.

Yeah, about that. How did Copernicus present his information in a way that spared him the persecution that Galileo suffered later? How much of it is down to Copernicus’s introduction, in which he lays out the historical underpinnings of his findings? I think it’s in the nature of the book. Galileo produced evidence, actual observed evidence, that this is how physical, material things work. Copernicus was projecting a mathematical model, and said in a letter that it didn’t necessarily have bearing on reality. Observing something physical is almost like piercing a tire–the whole thing didn’t hold up anymore. An observation can be repeated, and shown to be the case. Galileo said it was the only possibility. Copernicus said, “Ok, we’ve gone through a lot of hypotheses, and I believe this is a better and more useful model for making predictions, and you’re going to find, I think, that people will demonstrate this to be the case.” When Copernicus was censored, [the church’s prohibition meant] people must not read the book until it had been corrected. There were only ten corrections. If people possessed the book, they were invited to insert the corrections, and with the corrections, it was accepted by the Catholic Church. One correction was brutal–an entire chapter taken off. But of those extant, only one copy [reflects] carried-out corrections. Most don’t have any expurgations at all.

I imagine some reluctance to carry out the corrections was rooted in the cost of the book. Books were more expensive then… This book cost about one florin. An academic salary was about 100 to 120 florins per year. Considering that the academics had to buy and ship their books, plus cover their own food and maintenance, 1/100th of a yearly salary is not little.

As for Osiander and his preface–I’m guessing the publisher pressured him to write it, to double-cover everyones’ backsides, just in case. I think so, and it’s not just me, but these are conjectures. I quote mainly Owen Gingerich [Harvard professor emeritus, who wrote, in essence, a biography of this Copernicus book] that Rheticus, the pupil who oversaw the publication, crosses Osiander’s bit out in his own copy. Copernicus’s pupil, the one he trusted most, got quite cross with it and crossed it out. I believe if Rheticus had seen to the completion of the work, it [Osiander’s preface] probably would not have happened. Again, how much is conjecture, I don’t know. It’s just a really good story.

How physically involved was Copernicus in the production of the book? He gave the manuscript to Rheticus, who brought it to Nuremberg and started work on it. The printer printed quires, groups of leaves, and sent them to Copernicus for corrections. The last batch of leaves was never corrected, or Copernicus’s corrections were never sent back to the printer. Copernicus did remain involved and engaged with the production of the book, even at a distance, up until the last part.

Do we know how long a gap there was between Copernicus receiving a finished copy and Copernicus’s death? The lot notes say a copy “reached him on the eve of his death,” but is that literally true? They finished printing the whole book on April 20, 1543. We know because Rheticus dedicated a letter to a friend that said, “look at what [we] finished.” Nuremberg was 1,000 miles from Copernicus, so it took two weeks, possibly more, to ship it. Rheticus’s account says Copernicus received it the day before he died, and there’s no reason to doubt that.

The 1543 first edition Copernicus, shown closed and standing upright, with the spine visible.

Do we know if Copernicus was lucid enough to recognize and savor the achievement represented by the finished book? We don’t know. There’s no account of his reaction, but he had seen the proofs of most of the book, and he worked on it for 15 years. He was a perfectionist. There were no telescopes then–all observations were done with the naked eye. Copernicus had to be pushed to produce the book. Seeing the physical quires would have given him a sense of it actually happening.

How was it received in 1543? Did people recognize it for what it was? Absolutely. There was no sense of it being kept under the radar. A second edition was printed in 1566, in the same amount of copies, and it was an exact reprint of the first edition–no corrections. The fact that demand [was strong enough for a reprint] only 20 years later means the reaction was very positive and people picked it up.

What condition is this copy in? I’d say it’s comparable with other copies sold in the past. It’s an OK copy, it’s good. Most copies have blemishes. It’s important to bear in mind that the record $2.2 million price set at Christie’s New York in 2008 by the Richard Green copy is a total outlier. That copy was exceptional. No copy is as good, [whether it is held] privately or in an institution.

How often does a copy of this first edition come to auction? In the last 20 years, five copies have come up at auction. It’s always been a prized book, a milestone in the history of thought. I’d say half a million and upward is a consistent result.

What is the provenance of this copy? It comes from a Japanese university that’s not looking to continue its mission. Its library is going to be discontinued. It’s been in Japan for 40 years. The copy went through Italy and possibly France and eventually Japan via the book trade. It didn’t belong to any scientist or head of state that we know of. People have done very naughty things to these books–stealing pages and cutting out pages with stamps [library identification stamps] on them. This book has not been stolen from a library. You can be confident that’s the case.

What is the book like in person? What’s it like to handle it? The binding is later, but you don’t want to over-open it. Other than that precaution, it’s actually a very natural, very good, very wholesome experience to hold a book of that age. You feel confident that you can leaf through it, back and forth. To me, one of the most affecting parts of the book is the illustration of the concentric circles of the planets around the sun. You can see the earth, a little dot emphasized with a circle, that says we humans are not the center of the universe, but an accident on the periphery.

The 1543 Copernicus, open to the page showing the woodcut illustration that places the sun at the center of everything, rather than the earth.

Why will this book stick in your memory? For me, the excitement does not necessarily come from a specific copy, but its [being part of] a momentous edition. The whole story is exciting. The passing of geocentrism, putting the sun at the center of the universe, turns a page of history. It’s a fantastic testament to humanity, to people’s ability to reason.

How to bid: The first edition of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, libri V is lot 599 in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale at Christie’s London on July 10, 2019.

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Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. 

Christie’s also produced a story with Barbara Scalvini discussing the Copernicus and other landmark books that established that the Earth was not at the center of the universe.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

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Apollo 11 Moon Walk Videotape from NASA Could Command $2 Million at Sotheby’s

A trio of original, first-generation NASA videotapes of the Apollo 11 moon walk sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby's on July 20, 2019.

What you see: Original, first-generation NASA videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk and subsequent events. Sotheby’s estimates the three reels of tape at $1 million to $2 million.

The expert: Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.

How do we know these are the only surviving first-generation recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk? Let me add a word in there: only surviving first-generation NASA recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk. That’s important. The way these tapes were created was the images were sent from the moon and captured in California and Australia, and those images were recorded onto slow-scan tapes that took up 45 reels. The information on the 45 reels were scanned onto two-inch AMPEX reels, of which there are only three. What was seen at Houston and NASA mission control is what is on those tapes. NASA was the first place to receive the images [from ground stations in Australia and California], and they were then sent to various television stations around the world. With each subsequent bounce from station to station, [the images] degraded each time. What you saw live on TV was a lower quality than what was on these tapes.

So it–the TV images of the moon walk–were like a photocopy of a photocopy? Kind of, yeah. How we know these are the only surviving original first-generation NASA tapes is they were sold at a government surplus auction in 1976. The selling body was NASA. Many years later, when NASA searched for the slow-scan tapes, the 45 reels couldn’t be found. Then they discovered, unfortunately, that they had been erased and recorded over. The slow-scan tapes were the best tapes until the moment they were recorded over. Then the ones we’re selling became the best-surviving tapes because they’re the only NASA recording left.

Do we know when the 45 reels of slow-scan tapes were erased and recorded over? Nobody knows, but it’s safe to assume NASA had not discovered that, or had not erased the tapes when they sold [this set of three tapes] in a government auction. My guess is they would not have sold them if they realized [the slow-scan tapes] were erased or would be erased.

So it was safe for NASA to sell the trio of tapes in 1976 because they had, or reasonably believed they had, the slow-scan tapes? Yes. It was not a negative for NASA to sell them, because they had a superior copy.

When did NASA discover that the slow-scan tapes had been erased? In 2008 or 2009, around the time of the 40th moon walk anniversary.

That must have been a gut punch, to realize the slow-scan tapes of the first moon walk were gone. I’m sure it was because of budget cuts. Around the period of the [1970s] energy crisis, federal buildings were required to turn the air-conditioning off if there were no employees there on the weekend. The tapes in one building in Texas were found covered in mold [as a result of the energy conservation directive]. I’m sure it spurred the sale of the tapes. They couldn’t store them properly, so sell them and get some money out of them or throw them in the trash.

The press release also describes the tapes as “unrestored, unenhanced, and unremastered.” Does that mean that other period tapes of the moon walk have suffered that fate? Yes. When NASA discovered the slow-scan tapes had been erased, they decided to use other footage for the 40th anniversary. That footage was made sharper, crisper, more viewable. But once you restore something, you change it. It’s no longer in its original condition, and that has an impact from an artifactual and a value standpoint. Everything about these tapes is original, untouched, and unenhanced. I sat and watched every second of every reel. It’s exactly what mission control saw as it was happening.

One of the three AMPEX tapes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk, shown with its red and black storage case.

Ok, so we’ve established that NASA had no reason to believe they were giving away a gem when they consigned these tapes to auction, but this isn’t the first time that the government has unwittingly or accidentally sold a priceless artifact of the space race. Why does this keep happening? You’ve got to remember what NASA is and what its purpose is. They’re engineers. Not archivists. Not librarians. If you want archivists, there’s a specific degree and training you need. They have done their best to archive material, but after all, it’s a government agency, and it’s not funded as much as it could be. They’re not a museum. They’re a space agency. If they hired someone to oversee all their artifacts before they go into a GSA auction, that’d be great.

But they’d need more than one person to do that… They’d have to have an army. People make a living out of paying attention to these sales. It’s impossible to go over every item to make sure it’s not super-valuable. The amount of research we did on this…

How long did it take you to research this lot? Days? I couldn’t even quantify it in days.

Because you’re picking it up and putting it down… And discussing, and reading books and articles, and watching videos, and talking to colleagues, and scratching my head. It does take quite a lot of time. We put quite a lot of thought into it. It’s very much a team effort.

So Gary George bought the lot, which contained over 1,000 videotapes, for $217.77 in 1976, and he could have sold any one of those tapes for $200 at the time. That was exactly what he was doing. He was an intern at NASA, and a lot of interns, for fun, would go to government surplus auctions. George said he bought himself a sports car with the money he made. They were guys in their twenties, being entrepreneurial. He hit the jackpot, but he didn’t realize it at first.

When did George find the trio of tapes within the larger group? He filled three U-Haul trucks [with tapes] and stored them in his parents’ garage. He sold them as quickly as he could. It was his dad who said, “Those tapes say ‘Apollo 11 EVA July 20 1969’ on them. Maybe you should keep them.” His dad really saved those tapes. George was a young guy. He was going to resell them.

A stack of three AMPEX tape boxes containing original, first-generation NASA recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk.

I guess George thought NASA couldn’t have done something so silly as to sell tapes that record the first moon walk? Yeah. At that point, he held onto them, close to when he bought them. It was not until 2006 or 2007, when NASA was hunting for the slow-scan tapes, that he saw them and thought, “Gee, maybe I have something that’s important.”

When did you and your colleagues at Sotheby’s learn about the tapes? George reached out to us recently, in 2018.

I’ve heard tell of badly stored nitrate films from the silent era bursting into flame. Do these tapes pose a similar risk? Luckily, that’s not an issue here. I think post-1965, most were recorded using safety film. It will eventually degrade, but it is in remarkable condition. [When I brought it to an engineer who owned a device that could play it,] I didn’t tell them what it was. They spontaneously said, “Wow.” They kept remarking on the quality and how sharp the image was. Just by looking, they were able to tell me the tape was an original–I didn’t tell them it was an original. I was just a weird lady who came into the office with tapes she wanted to play.

Will the winning bidder need to hunt down a period AMPEX videotape device to watch these reels? No. They’ve been digitized in a super-high-resolution manner and saved onto a one-terabyte hard drive and a thumb drive. You can watch the hard drive or the thumb drive and keep the reels as artifacts. It’s kind of like having the manuscript, a first edition, and a paperback of the same book. You read the paperback, and the manuscript and the first edition stay on the shelf. I always bring it back to books…

I apologize if this is a silly question, but did NASA shoot these videos in black and white? Not that that makes much difference on the lunar surface, which is pretty close to black-and-white as it is. They’re in both. In the opening footage, you see engineers in mission control, and that’s in color. On the lunar surface, it’s black and white. [It might have been] because they didn’t have the capability to broadcast color from the moon, and because most people had black and white televisions [in 1969].

And to clarify–these are NOT three reels from the missing 45. These are separate and different yes? They are not three from the 45, but they represent what’s on the 45 reels. This is the complete EVA [extra-vehicular activity]. I can only imagine what the quality would have been if they’d taken up the 45 reels. Maybe there was a little extra, but who knows? The 45 reels have been erased. But the content should be the same.

Again, apologies for what might be a silly question, but I feel I should clarify–the winner gets the physical things in the lot, and does not receive copyright or control over the images shown on the three reels, yes? We’re just selling the tapes themselves as artifacts. The content is in the public domain. There is no copyright. If you want to make and sell t-shirts [with these images], you’ve got to ask permission [from NASA].

Is there anything about these tapes that doesn’t come across in the photos? For example, how heavy are they? They are very heavy. Each reel weighs about 15 pounds. They were too heavy for one person to carry all three on the airline.

It hadn’t occurred to me that you had to fly the tapes to New York. How did that work? It was complicated to get them on the plane. At security, they could have been demagnetized, because they’re magnetic tapes. We had to flag them for special screening, so they weren’t brought anywhere near magnetic machines. I viewed them on the East coast to be sure they didn’t get erased between the West coast and getting here.

It must have been a relief to watch the tapes and realize they’d arrived safely. It was a tense moment, watching the engineer spool it up on the machine. It was nerve-wracking. But I realized what a nerd I really am–it started, and I narrated it. I really know this mission!

The three AMPEX tapes of the Apollo 11 moon walk, each shown on top of their red and black boxes.

Why will this lot stick in your memory? When I watched the tapes, I was surprised, because I started tearing up. The engineer spooling the tapes started tearing up. His wife started tearing up. It has such an impact on people. I’ve sold a lot of cool things that flew to the moon, but this represents what all that effort was for. This is the primary witness to the moment we worked for. It really is representative of man’s greatest achievement. It’s the original artifact from the agency that made it possible. It all comes back to the moments captured on these tapes.

How to bid: The trio of Apollo 11 videotape recordings is lot 104 in the Space Exploration sale taking place at Sotheby’s New York on July 20, 2019 (of course).

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Images are courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Cassandra Hatton has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize and an Apollo 13 flight plan.

In a NASA story about the search for the slow-scan tapes that mentions this trio of videotapes, the agency states, “If the tapes are as described in the sale material, they are 2-inch videotapes recorded in Houston from the video that had been converted to a format that could be broadcast over commercial television and contain no material that hasn’t been preserved at NASA.”

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RECORD! The Bulova Chronograph that Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott Wore on the Moon Sold for $1.6 Million at RR Auction in 2015

The Bulova chronograph that astronaut David Scott wore on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission, shown in full.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: The Bulova chronograph that astronaut David Scott wore on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission. RR Auction sold it in October 2015 for $1.6 million against an estimate of $750,000. It set a then-record for an Apollo item, a record for an item owned and directly consigned by an astronaut, a record for a timepiece used on the lunar surface, a record for any Bulova watch, and a RR Auction house record for the most expensive lot that it has handled.

The expert: Bobby Livingston, executive vice president at RR Auction.

The Apollo astronauts relied on government-issued Omega Speedmaster chronographs. How did Scott convince NASA to let him use the Bulova instead? He didn’t. Scott and the others are engineers, responsible for the lives of their crews. They brought backups. Bulova gave him the watch and a stopwatch, which we also sold. The company was U.S.-owned at the time. They tried very hard to get the chronograph contract from NASA. Bulova’s then-boss, Omar Bradley, had said, “How can we put boys on the moon wearing foreign-made watches?” During the second EVA [A NASA acronym that stands for “extravehicular activity,” which describes anything an astronaut does outside a spacecraft that has left the Earth], he noticed that the crystal on his Omega Speedmaster was gone. We don’t know why [it went missing] but the heat emanating from the sun may have heated to a temperature that had it pop off. Scott took the Omega off the strap and replaced it with the Bulova. It was a prototype watch. He brought it as a backup, with no promises to the Bulova company that he would use it.

The Bulova was a prototype? It was the prototype they made to pitch to NASA on the contract that Omega got. They developed it to go to the moon, but it was never put into production. Only Dave, the [spacecraft] commander, had a Bulova backup. I don’t think the others [his two crewmates] were approached by the Bulova company.

The Bulova chronograph that astronaut David Scott wore on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission, shown in full.

Could you talk for a bit about why the astronauts needed these watches, and how they relied on them? They all needed wristwatches. Dave basically used it to keep track of the elapsed time on the consumables used. We included a quote from Scott in the catalog: “Time is of the essence during human lunar expeditions–and exploration time on the surface is limited by the oxygen and water (for cooling) we can carry in our backpacks… knowledge of precise time remaining was essential.”

How long did Scott wear the Bulova on the lunar surface? The third EVA was four hours, 49 minutes, and 50 seconds. [Livingston relayed these numbers from memory, with complete fluency.] What was really cool about the watch was he drove the lunar rover while wearing it. He was the first to drive on the moon, and the watch stood up to that, obviously. It was very much exposed to lunar material. You can see the scratches on the bezel.

Closeup of the dial of the Bulova chronograph that astronaut David Scott wore on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission. Moon dust is visible on the face of the wristwatch.

Was Scott wearing the watch when he repeated Galileo’s experiment on the lunar surface, dropping the hammer and the feather and proving they’d hit the ground at the same time? Yes, but he didn’t actually use the watch. Each arm was holding out an item, and he didn’t need the timer to see them hit the surface. They hit at the same time. It was apparent. [Laughs] But he wore the watch when he did it. The significance of this particular watch on his arm when he did it was profound to us.

Did the watch and the strap have lunar dust on it? It certainly had remnants of lunar material when I saw it, and obvious damage to the crystal from the lunar surface.

The Bulova chronograph that astronaut David Scott wore on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission, shown in full, with the fuzzy side of the velcro strap visible.

The strap as well? Yes, it was apparent that lunar material was on it when I got it. There are shots of Dave wearing the watch during splashdown [the term for when a spacecraft makes its return landing in the ocean; the astronauts disembark into a dinghy], so it may have been in the ocean. [RR Auction created a dedicated catalog for Scott’s Bulova. You can see a period photo of a post-splashdown Scott, his watch clearly visible on his wrist, on pages 14-15.] There is a bit of rust on the watch. I saw lunar dust on it. It wasn’t covered. There wasn’t tons of it. But it certainly had it.

What did Scott do with the watch after the Apollo 15 mission? He put it into a baggie and kept it in storage for 40 years until he sent it to us.

Does the watch have inherent value? Would it be worth something even if it hadn’t gone to the moon on Scott’s wrist? It sounds like it might, given that it was a prototype designed to win a NASA contract. Even if it never went to the moon, it has collectible value. Interestingly, when I approached Bulova and said I had Dave’s Bulova, which he wore on the moon, they didn’t believe me.

How did you convince Bulova of your claim? Dave had retained documents from Bulova. I had source material that didn’t exist in their archives of Omar Bradley talking about the watch and getting the contract. Then they believed me. [Laughs]

You set an estimate of $750,000. How did you come up with that number? We based it on other artifacts that we had sold for Dave Scott. We sold his rotational hand controller for a similar price, $610,000, and we sold his cuff checklist for $364,000. We felt it was the most important thing that he had in his collection. We recognized that it was the only watch that’s been on the lunar surface that you could own. The government still retains all of the Omega watches. Anything that’s been on the lunar surface has immense value because it’s critical to the mission. This certainly was.

I imagine there was cross-competition for this between watch collectors and space memorabilia collectors. That was exactly what happened. As it got higher, we had dueling collectors of Apollo [material] and watches. They understood the significance of the item. Not only was it on the surface, it was a watch. It crossed over, certainly.

 Did you try it on? I did not. The lunar strap had to fit on the space suit, so it was quite long. I used gloves to handle it. I do own a Bulova chronograph replica because it is my favorite thing.

Closeup of part of the velcro strap on the Bulova chronograph that astronaut David Scott wore on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission.

Do you wear the Bulova replica every day? Yeah! [laughs]

How did you convince Scott to consign the watch? We knew it existed. It was rumored in the collecting community that he wore it on the EVA. Once he became a client, it did take some effort for him to consign it, but he’s glad he did. It wasn’t the first thing out of storage. We built a relationship with him, and then he said, “I have this watch…”

Does the watch still work? From the time I got it to the time I sold it, it had a little life in it. Somehow, it showed us it still worked. [Between Scott taking the scouting photos of the watch and Livingston receiving the watch, the hands advanced, but it’s not clear when they briefly winked to life.] I wouldn’t wind it. Usually with a watch, you clean it. This watch, you don’t want to clean it. It’s just too important.

A closeup of the dial of the Bulova chronograph that astronaut David Scott wore on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission.

What was the auction like? We sold it live at our gallery in Boston. All of us worked really hard on the auction. It was a really intense moment, adrenalin pumping. When we exceeded our client’s expectations, it was unbelievable. If I recall correctly, there were five initial bidders. The lot took eight or nine minutes.

Was Scott there in the sale room? No, but he was listening through a computer. We got his reaction at the time. He was very generous and kind to everyone who worked on the auction. He made it about our staff and the auction. I think he understood the importance of getting the object in the hands of a collector who will take care of it. I think that’s what he cares about.

Were you surprised that it sold for $1.6 million? You know, our expectations were $750,000. It was thrilling for it to get to a $1 million bid and keep going [laughs loudly]. That was unbelievable. It was an achievement for us. We don’t sell fine art. We don’t have Banksy shredding his work on our walls. [laughs]

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It crosses so many lines. It’s history. It was important to the mission. It’s a great story. There’s incredible photographic provenance [evidence]. It comes right from him. It tells so many stories of the mission. It has an emotional resonance with me on so many levels. And it went to the moon! [laughs] And came back!

How to subscribe to The Hot Bid: Click the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Images are courtesy of RR Auction.

In case you missed it above, here’s the link to the digital version of the dedicated catalog that RR Auctions produced for the Bulova chronograph.

And in case you missed it above, here’s video of Dave Scott performing Galileo’s gravity experiment on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission.

And here’s a short video segment on the sale of the watch.

Livingston spoke to The Hot Bid previously about Dave Scott’s Apollo 17-flown Robbins medal and spoke in 2017 about a ring that Clyde Barrow made in prison to give to his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

A First-edition Copernicus Could Sell for Almost $900,000 at Christie’s London

Detail shot of Copernicus's 1543 book, showing the sun at the center of the universe.

What you see: A 1543 copy of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, libri V [On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres], by Nicolaus Copernicus, the first scientific work to place the sun at the center of the heavens, rather than the Earth. Christie’s London estimates it at £500,000 to £700,000, or $633,000 to $886,200.

The expert: Barbara Scalvini, expert specialist in the book and manuscript department at Christie’s.

Do we know how many copies of this book were printed in 1543, and how many survive? By conjecture, we can get to between 400 and 500 copies printed of the first edition. 277 have been described, but we have lost some of those. There are about 250 we know of.

Who would have been the audience for this book in 1543? Universities? Yes, but universities would have been more fluid entities than we know now. The purchaser would have been an astronomer or a lecturer. The book would have traveled with the scholar. The audience would have been a specialized community of scientists devoted to astronomy, and astronomy was not what we intend it now to be. It was a lot to do with calendar-setting and what we’d now say are horoscope predictions. It wasn’t just observing celestial phenomena.

Can we tell, simply by looking at the finished book, how challenging it might have been to make? The book has 142 woodcut illustrations in it. You appreciate that the scientist had to draw these illustrations and the woodcutter had to reproduce them. A lot of precision was needed. Copernicus, at the time, was living in the very north of Poland, and his publisher was in Nuremberg, Germany, about 1,000 miles away. He didn’t have the chance to personally oversee [the book’s] production. He had to delegate production to a pupil, Georg Joachim Rheticus. Then Rheticus got another job at a university that was miles away, and Andreas Osiander was asked by the publisher to oversee the last bit.

Detail shot of Copernicus's landmark 1543 book, open to show one of its woodcut illustrations.

What challenges did Copernicus face in publishing this book? How did those challenges shape how he presented his information? It was the publisher’s skin at stake as much, if not more, than Copernicus. That has to get into the picture. Copernicus wrote a very diplomatic introduction that makes Osiander’s preface irrelevant. Another challenge, for example, was the patronage challenge.

Copernicus and the publisher sought funding from patrons? No. The aim was to get protection, not money, not advancement.

So, patronage in this case meant asking influential people not to aim their guns at this book? I think so. Copernicus was very clever [to say in his introduction] “It’s all for astronomers. It doesn’t question the prime mover or the God side of things, really. It’s going to be used by professionals so we can have a better calendar, and better predictions of the future, so you should be happy.” That probably means he was conscious that the content might raise eyebrows.

How real were the risks that Copernicus and his publisher faced? What consequences could have, or would have, followed if they hadn’t proceeded in the way that they did? Copernicus was a Catholic canon [a type of administrator within his local church], so he could have lost his position in the hierarchy. Dissemination of the book could have been impaired [by church censorship]. The idea that the earth was not the center of the universe had been mooted by others. The risks to his nice, quiet life as a Catholic canon were there, but it wasn’t the risk of prison that Galileo faced later.

What might be the title page of Copernicus's 1543 masterwork that place the sun at the center of the heavens.

Yeah, about that. How did Copernicus present his information in a way that spared him the persecution that Galileo suffered later? How much of it is down to Copernicus’s introduction, in which he lays out the historical underpinnings of his findings? I think it’s in the nature of the book. Galileo produced evidence, actual observed evidence, that this is how physical, material things work. Copernicus was projecting a mathematical model, and said in a letter that it didn’t necessarily have bearing on reality. Observing something physical is almost like piercing a tire–the whole thing didn’t hold up anymore. An observation can be repeated, and shown to be the case. Galileo said it was the only possibility. Copernicus said, “Ok, we’ve gone through a lot of hypotheses, and I believe this is a better and more useful model for making predictions, and you’re going to find, I think, that people will demonstrate this to be the case.” When Copernicus was censored, [the church’s prohibition meant] people must not read the book until it had been corrected. There were only ten corrections. If people possessed the book, they were invited to insert the corrections, and with the corrections, it was accepted by the Catholic Church. One correction was brutal–an entire chapter taken off. But of those extant, only one copy [reflects] carried-out corrections. Most don’t have any expurgations at all.

I imagine some reluctance to carry out the corrections was rooted in the cost of the book. Books were more expensive then… This book cost about one florin. An academic salary was about 100 to 120 florins per year. Considering that the academics had to buy and ship their books, plus cover their own food and maintenance, 1/100th of a yearly salary is not little.

As for Osiander and his preface–I’m guessing the publisher pressured him to write it, to double-cover everyones’ backsides, just in case. I think so, and it’s not just me, but these are conjectures. I quote mainly Owen Gingerich [Harvard professor emeritus, who wrote, in essence, a biography of this Copernicus book] that Rheticus, the pupil who oversaw the publication, crosses Osiander’s bit out in his own copy. Copernicus’s pupil, the one he trusted most, got quite cross with it and crossed it out. I believe if Rheticus had seen to the completion of the work, it [Osiander’s preface] probably would not have happened. Again, how much is conjecture, I don’t know. It’s just a really good story.

How physically involved was Copernicus in the production of the book? He gave the manuscript to Rheticus, who brought it to Nuremberg and started work on it. The printer printed quires, groups of leaves, and sent them to Copernicus for corrections. The last batch of leaves was never corrected, or Copernicus’s corrections were never sent back to the printer. Copernicus did remain involved and engaged with the production of the book, even at a distance, up until the last part.

Do we know how long a gap there was between Copernicus receiving a finished copy and Copernicus’s death? The lot notes say a copy “reached him on the eve of his death,” but is that literally true? They finished printing the whole book on April 20, 1543. We know because Rheticus dedicated a letter to a friend that said, “look at what [we] finished.” Nuremberg was 1,000 miles from Copernicus, so it took two weeks, possibly more, to ship it. Rheticus’s account says Copernicus received it the day before he died, and there’s no reason to doubt that.

The 1543 first edition Copernicus, shown closed and standing upright, with the spine visible.

Do we know if Copernicus was lucid enough to recognize and savor the achievement represented by the finished book? We don’t know. There’s no account of his reaction, but he had seen the proofs of most of the book, and he worked on it for 15 years. He was a perfectionist. There were no telescopes then–all observations were done with the naked eye. Copernicus had to be pushed to produce the book. Seeing the physical quires would have given him a sense of it actually happening.

How was it received in 1543? Did people recognize it for what it was? Absolutely. There was no sense of it being kept under the radar. A second edition was printed in 1566, in the same amount of copies, and it was an exact reprint of the first edition–no corrections. The fact that demand [was strong enough for a reprint] only 20 years later means the reaction was very positive and people picked it up.

What condition is this copy in? I’d say it’s comparable with other copies sold in the past. It’s an OK copy, it’s good. Most copies have blemishes. It’s important to bear in mind that the record $2.2 million price set at Christie’s New York in 2008 by the Richard Green copy is a total outlier. That copy was exceptional. No copy is as good, [whether it is held] privately or in an institution.

How often does a copy of this first edition come to auction? In the last 20 years, five copies have come up at auction. It’s always been a prized book, a milestone in the history of thought. I’d say half a million and upward is a consistent result.

What is the provenance of this copy? It comes from a Japanese university that’s not looking to continue its mission. Its library is going to be discontinued. It’s been in Japan for 40 years. The copy went through Italy and possibly France and eventually Japan via the book trade. It didn’t belong to any scientist or head of state that we know of. People have done very naughty things to these books–stealing pages and cutting out pages with stamps [library identification stamps] on them. This book has not been stolen from a library. You can be confident that’s the case.

What is the book like in person? What’s it like to handle it? The binding is later, but you don’t want to over-open it. Other than that precaution, it’s actually a very natural, very good, very wholesome experience to hold a book of that age. You feel confident that you can leaf through it, back and forth. To me, one of the most affecting parts of the book is the illustration of the concentric circles of the planets around the sun. You can see the earth, a little dot emphasized with a circle, that says we humans are not the center of the universe, but an accident on the periphery.


The 1543 Copernicus, open to the page showing the woodcut illustration that places the sun at the center of everything, rather than the earth.

Why will this book stick in your memory? For me, the excitement does not necessarily come from a specific copy, but its [being part of] a momentous edition. The whole story is exciting. The passing of geocentrism, putting the sun at the center of the universe, turns a page of history. It’s a fantastic testament to humanity, to people’s ability to reason.

How to bid: The first edition of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, libri V is lot 599 in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale at Christie’s London on July 10, 2019.

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Christie’s also produced a story with Barbara Scalvini discussing the Copernicus and other landmark books that established that the Earth was not at the center of the universe.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

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