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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