Wow! Apollo 11 Moon Walk Videotapes from NASA Sold at Sotheby’s for (Scroll Down to See)

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.

Update: The trio of original, first-generation NASA videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk sold for $1.8 million.

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.

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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.”

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.

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.

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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.

Images are courtesy of Christie’s.

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A Porphyry Popeye Fantail Birdstone Could Soar to $350,000

A porphyry popeye fantail birdstone, created by the people of the Glacial Kame Culture sometime between 3,000 and 500 BCE in what is now DeKalb County, Indiana. It looks like a small dog, except it has two loops where the front and back feet should be. It is slate gray with pale cream-colored blobs of varying sizes across its body. It has two wide nailhead-like protuberances where its ears should be, but the protuberances are called "eyes".

What you see: A porphyry popeye fantail birdstone, created by the people of the Glacial Kame Culture sometime between 3,000 and 500 BCE in what is now DeKalb County, Indiana. Cowan’s Auctions estimates it at $250,000 to $350,000.

The expert: Erin Rust, specialist in the department of American Indian Art at Cowan’s.

What is a birdstone, and what do we know about how the Glacial Kame Culture people might have used it? It’s an effigy, usually carved from a softer stone, and it’s kind of unclear what, exactly, the artifacts were used for. They’re usually field finds. This was found in a potato field in northern Indiana. It was possibly an atlatl [pronounced at-el-at-el] weight–a throwing device used to achieve a higher power when throwing.

Kind of like a counterweight on a trebuchet? It’s an extension of the arm throwing a spear. Harder and faster and for high-powered hunting. We don’t really find them in archeological contexts. It’s up for conjecture what they were actually used for.

How were birdstones made? They were expertly carved, chipped away from a larger block of stone. They roughed out the form in the shape they wanted, then polished it into the final form.

Sounds like a lot of work. Especially if it’s a hard, granite-type stone.

How hard is it to carve porphyry? It’s pretty difficult. It’s a hard hard stone. They’d typically use banded slate, which is a lot easier to carve. There are not as many porphyry birdstones. They’re much more labor-intensive, and much more rare. About 10 percent of the known birdstones are carved out of porphyry.

Would the cream-colored splotches have drawn the carver to the stone, and influenced how they carved it, in the way that jade carvers in China work with rust-colored inclusions in the stone? Exactly. They would look at the material and decide to carve it based on the cream-colored splotches, which are called phenocrysts.

And why is it called a birdstone? This one, to me, looks more like a dog than a bird. It could be a dog, it could be a bird, but it’s commonly called a birdstone. Some look like bears, some look like birds, some look like dogs. It’s the interpretation of the viewer. “Birdstone” is the general term for it.

And the things protruding from the head are called eyes? I thought they were ears. They’re called eyes, but whether they’re actually ears or eyes is open to interpretation as well.

Is it made to be held in the hand? It is small, but because of the perforations on the ridges at the bottom, it [was probably] meant to be attached to something like an atlatl rather than held.

To be clear–if birdstones were found in an archeological context, they’d be more likely to be considered jewelry. Because they’re found in fields, it’s more likely they were attached to an atlatl with a sinew and maybe the sinew broke. It could be jewelry, but they’re found in fields. We don’t really find them in an archeological context.

Cameron Parks, who owned this piece, deemed it the finest birdstone in the world. Is it? What makes it so? This piece is regarded as one of the top five examples of Popeye porphyry birdstones. What makes it unique is the blue hue to the stone. Porphyry can be quite dark. The blue hue with the cream phenocrysts make it pop and makes it unique. Also, the popeyes are large on the top of his head, and the form tapers into his head. And the bodies are usually long and slender, but with this, the body expands into a circular form, and a tail that widens to a fantail, and tips up.

This birdstone was found in 1950. Was the mid-20th century a time when many birdstones were being discovered? Among the top five greatest birdstones, this piece was discovered the latest. The Smithsonian birdstone was discovered in 1882. The majority of them had been discovered by 1950.

What condition is it in, and what does “condition” mean when we’re talking about something that’s thousands of years old? As old as this piece is, it’s in exceptional condition. With these, the head breaks off, the tail breaks off, the eyes or ears break off. On this, nothing has broken off. It has two small nicks, one on the bottom near a perforated ridge, and one on the top edge of the left eye. The fact that it’s never broken and it’s as old as it is is pretty amazing.

The lot notes say it retains its original polish. What does that mean here? This piece did not spend time buried in acidic soil. It has not deteriorated. The polish is the same as it was when it went in the ground. The surface is very smooth. There’s no pitting to it. It’s incredible.

So, it being made of porphyry made it more resilient? Birdstones made from banded slate lose their polish faster and the ground erodes them quicker. Porphyry ones are less likely to erode.

Has this piece been auctioned before? It’s been in the same family for 70 years. They have offered it before at auction, probably eight years ago.

What does the Cameron Parks provenance add to the piece? Cameron Parks had one of the largest and better collections [of artifacts] in the country. That makes artifacts from his collection are more sought-after.

What’s the record for a birdstone at auction? Very few, if any birdstones of this caliber have been offered at public auction. They have been offered privately, but not at auction. We had a very nice collection of 30 to 35 birdstones, but not of this caliber. We sold them starting in 2017 and finishing in September 2018. That was a very large collection of birdstones, but normally when they come up there are one or two, not 30 to 35.

What is it like in person? He’s small, but he’s pretty mighty. [Laughs] I call him “he”. It has a very strong presence to it. The craftsmanship of it is absolutely incredible. Very few [other birdstones] compare to this piece because of its craftsmanship, the material, everything about it.

What is it like to hold it in your hand? It fits perfectly in your hand, but it doesn’t feel like something [designed] to hold on to. The perforations at the bottom makes it sit oddly in the hand. That’s why it might have been used with an atlatl.

Is there anything that the camera doesn’t pick up? The camera really emphasizes its presence. When you first see it, you think, “Whoa, he’s kinda small.” Then you handle it, and its aura is magnificent. I think the photographer really captured the presence in this piece.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a rare opportunity to have close access to such a high-level artifact. I probably won’t have the opportunity to see this caliber of birdstone come through the door again. It’s pretty remarkable.

How to bid: The porphyry popeye fantail birdstone is lot 22 in the American Indian and Western Art: Premier Auction taking place at Cowan’s Auctions on April 5, 2019.

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SOLD! A Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites Commanded… (Scroll Down to See)

A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. It's roughly triangular-shaped, and cut to show the clear, firm bands of solid iron and pallasites.

Update: The slab Seymchan meteorite with pallasites sold for $27,500.

What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.

Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.

How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.

The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.

Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.

I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.

Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.

Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.

This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.

I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.

This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.

Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.

And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the  roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.

Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.

Meteorite (Seymchan; Pallasite, PMG); base 17.3 cm across. Seymchan village, Magadan district, Russia. Darryl Pitt specimen; Mark Mauthner photo.

What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.

Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.

Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.

How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.

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.

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. James Hyslop is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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 Seymchan Meteorite with Pallasites Could Sell for $30,000

A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. It's roughly triangular-shaped, and cut to show the clear, firm bands of solid iron and pallasites.

What you see: A slab of a meteorite recovered near Seymchan, Siberia, Russia, which features extraterrestrial gemstones. Christie’s estimates it at $20,000 to $30,000.

The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.

Was the Seymchan meteorite fall witnessed? Or were the meteorites simply discovered at some point after they hit the Earth’s surface? I believe they were found by metal detector in the 1960s, and people went back to the area to find more.

How often do Seymchan meteorites come to auction? They’re probably disproportionately [represented] because they’re so beautiful. You get a skewed view of meteorites from sales. We really present the best of the best. Pick a meteorite at random, and it’s an ugly rock. For every one I offer, I reject nine. There are some Seymchans in most of my sales.

Is Seymchan a marquee name for meteorite collectors? Are they must-haves? Collectors want Seymchans. This is a great example, and it appeals to collectors who have never seen meteorites before. People who buy in the jewelry sales, the contemporary art sales, the antiquities sales, and the Old Masters sales buy in these sales.

The lot notes say less than 0.2 percent of all meteorites contain pallasites, the extraterrestrial peridots visible on the right side of the meteorite. How are pallasites created? What has to happen? Four and a half billion years ago, there were early bodies like Earth that had iron cores and stony mantles. When these proto-planets broke up, their outsides became stony meteorites, their insides became iron meteorites, and at the boundary between the two [the iron core and the stony mantle], there were pallasites.

Why do pallasites show up in meteorites? Why not emeralds, or diamonds, or other gemstones? It has to do with the geology of the proto-planetary body, but you do find nano-diamonds in meteorites. We had one in the last sale. By nano, I mean on the nano scale. They’re nothing you could put in an engagement ring.

I get that pallasites are gem-quality stones, and olivine isn’t, but can you point out which is which on the photo of the meteorite with the lot? The ones that sparkle, shine, and catch the light–those are pallasites. Olivine is the mineral. Those that look brown are more olivine than pallasite.

Do you typically have both in a meteorite, or can you have all-pallasite meteorites? You do get slices of pallasite meteorite that might miss any olivine. You get some slices that are nicely homogenous, with peridot in an iron matrix. You can get meteorites that are just iron, which are slightly further away from the boundary [between the proto-planetary stony mantle and iron core]. Then you’ve got some that are more transitional, with seas of olivine and pallasite and seas of metal.

Who cuts meteorites, and how does that person decide where and how much to cut? Seymchan is a good meteorite for cutting in that the meteorites on their own do not have much going for them, aesthetically. You don’t destroy much by cutting them open. The shape determines how to cut–slices, cubes, even spheres. An American football-sized meteorite is easy to cut into a sphere. One that has an arm shape is easier to cut into slices.

Who cuts the meteorite? A gem-cutter? No, there are specialized people who do that. It’s not easy. When you cut, you always want the smallest amount of wastage possible. You want to do it as carefully as possible, in lab-like conditions. The iron in pallasites are relatively soft, but for some, you need a diamond blade to cut through them.

This example was cut from a larger meteorite. Do we know how large it was? We don’t, but I would bet it’s under 50 kilos [110 pounds].

How rare is it to come across what we see here–a clear boundary between the iron and the pallasites? That will have informed how to cut it, to bring out the transition between the two. There may have been the temptation to cut the gems off and fashion it into a sphere. I’m glad they didn’t. I like the contrast between the two sides.

I’ve been lying in wait to write about a meteorite like lot 1–one entirely shot through with pallasites–but this jumped out at me because I’ve never seen one like it. Is it as unusual as it seems? This is the first I’ve had with this presentation. That’s why I’m so fond of it. I’ve had a slice where the pallasites looked like a river of metal was running through it. This is a more substantial piece. You don’t see much like this at all, even if you look at the best Seymchans out there.

This meteorite weighs 8.4 pounds–not small, and not huge. Does that matter? As with artworks and sculpture, there does come a point where the size becomes difficult for collectors. We have one in the sale that’s 88 kilos [187 pounds]–probably too big for a desk. 8.4 pounds is a nice size. Conversely, if you get something really heavy, it’s more valuable again. If you can sit it outside a museum and no one can run off with it, its weight becomes a virtue again.

Why does lot 1 have a lower estimate than this meteorite, given that it’s shot through with gemstones, and this is not? It’s smaller. That’s what it comes down to. In gems, they use the four Cs [color, cut, clarity, and carat]. I use the four Ss: size, shape, story, and science. Science–What’s interesting about meteorites is they provide data on the early solar system. Lunar or Martian meteorites have more scientific interest. Story–did it explode over Siberia in the 1950s? Did it take out the dinosaurs? Did it destroy a car? Size–bigger is better. Shape–that encompasses aesthetics. Some meteorites are intrinsically more beautiful than others, and more desirable, and fetch more money.

And how would you judge this meteorite by your four Ss? Size… if you had everything else equal but you cut it in half, it’s $10,000 to $15,000. If it was a bit larger, $40,000 to $60,000. I really like the aesthetics of this–the outer crust, the metal, the pallasite, and the  roughly triangular, pleasing shape. In terms of science, it’s rare, and it’s a pallasite. The story originates with a proto-planetary body. We don’t know when it fell to earth, but it was relatively recent. Seymchan was only discovered in the 1960s.

Have you held it? Yes, but not for a while.

What was that like? I still have this [feeling] every time I hold a meteorite–they are four and half billion years old, which is a number so large as to almost be meaningless. The philosophical quandary when you hold it in your hand is it’s an object that comes from space. That’s mind-blowing. And four and a half billion years makes it one-third as old as the universe.

Is it heavy? Actually, with this one, I fell in love with it before I held it. To see the contrast in the stone is stunning.

Why will this meteorite stick in your memory? Having those three different colors to it–the weathered surface, the polished pattern of the metal, and the pallasite crystals–it really stands out from the others. I’ll definitely remember it for a while. This is not really a word, but this is a very covetous object. When I see it, I want it. Some people get that when they see a native gold nugget. It transmits a desire to acquire it.

How to bid: The Seymchan meteorite is lot 22 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar and other Rare Meteorites, a sale Christie’s will hold online between February 6 through February 14, 2019.

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.

Christie’s is on Twitter and Instagram. James Hyslop is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Hyslop previously appeared on The Hot Bid, talking about a Canyon Diablo meteorite that ultimately sold for $237,500.

Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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

SOLD! Richard Feynman’s 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics Fetched (Scroll Down to See)

The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Richard Feynman in 1965 for his contributions to creating a new quantum electrodynamics.

Update: Feynman’s 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics sold for $975,000.

What you see: The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Richard Feynman in 1965 for his contributions to creating a new quantum electrodynamics. Sotheby’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

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

In the press release for the sale and in the raw lot notes for the Nobel Prize, Feynman is described as a “rock star of physics” and “one of the most beloved scientists of all time.” What makes him so? I think what earns him the title of the “rock star of physics” is his personality–who he was as a human, and his intellectual capacity. If you look at other physicists of his caliber, you don’t see relatable humans with the same intellect. You could compare Feynman to Einstein, but Feynman loved teaching, and it was more important to him than theoretical work. Rock stars transcend their genres. They’re not just musicians. Feynman transcended his work. He would always say there’s nothing magical here, that he was just very curious, worked hard on the questions, and figured it out. But he inspired people, and he imparted excitement to people.

Feynman died 30 years ago, but he’s just as popular now as he was when he was alive. How has he managed to persist? Why hasn’t his memory faded? Partly it’s because of his personality, who he was. A lot of scientists are best known for their work. With others, the subject that won the prize is far more famous than the person who did the work. Because Feynman was such a popular figure, he was able to stay popular.

Have his books and his former students played a role in keeping his memory alive? He taught so many people who went on to teach other people who are super-successful and doing things they love to do. Not all are physicists, but they apply what they learned from Feynman to their lives. One of his biggest lessons was to enjoy life and enjoy what you’re doing. I’ve met many of his students, and they’re generally happy, fun-loving people. And I think the books definitely help.

It’s interesting that Feynman’s fame persists without the help of an Academy Award-winning film, such as A Beautiful Mind. At the end of the day, an Oscar-winning film is just an Oscar-winning film. Feynman doesn’t need a film. He became his own legend. He’s one of the rare people who was human, fun-loving, and also a fun-loving genius. He defied the stereotype of the scientist in a lab, not interacting people, with no social skills. He was the opposite of that.

Feynman won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for work on quantum electrodynamics. Using non-technical language, can you explain why his contribution to science was such a big deal? Feynman was asked the same question, and he said, “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.” To be frank, I don’t understand it completely.

Feynman was one of three who earned the 1965 prize for work on this problem. Did he work directly with his fellow winners, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga? They were all working on similar problems independently, but they knew about each other and were aware of each other’s work. Schwinger and Tomonaga took a mathematical approach to how to reconcile quantum mechanics, a 19th century science, with quantum electrodynamics, a 20th century science. Feynman’s approach was completely original and took a completely different direction. One of the ways he explained it it was by coming up with Feynman diagrams [click those words to see what a Feynman diagram looks like]. Those diagrams really revolutionized how we do quantum electrodynamics. They’re standard now.

How did Feynman learn that he’d won the Nobel Prize? He got a phone call at 4 am from a reporter. My understanding is he was unhappy about it [both the crazy-early phone call and the news of the win]. He asked his wife, Gweneth, how he could get out of it. He had a good life, and he knew the win would change things. I think the way it goes is she said, ‘Dear, the publicity would be worse if you don’t accept the prize.’ So he went to Stockholm and ended up having a great time. Feynman had been raised with a suspicion of institutions and authority. [Receiving the prize] played into his reluctance, because it was another symbol of the establishment. But he realized the machine had started running, and it’s harder to stop the machine than go along with it.

What did Feynman do with his share of the Nobel Prize money? He spent part of it on a vacation house in Mexico, and he bought a van. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which they take the Richard Feynman van and drive down to Mexico and stay in Richard Feynman’s vacation home.

Have the other two Nobel Prizes in Physics for 1965 come to auction? No. I keep a spreadsheet of all the Nobel Prizes ever sold. I’ve been obsessed with the market for Nobels for a long time–I started tracking them in 2012. They have not come up.

How have you seen the market for Nobel Prizes change over time? A few had come up, three or four, since 1988. Then Francis Crick’s Nobel sold at Heritage Auctions for $2.2 million in 2013, and it kind of sparked a flurry. It was the highest price ever paid for a Nobel, and it really got a lot of attention. It was followed by James Watson’s Nobel Prize selling at Christie’s in 2014 for $4.7 million. What’s really interesting is most of what we sell has no inherent value, but the story is what is valuable. Whereas a Nobel Prize actually has a value. Prizes minted before 1985 are made from 23-karat solid gold. Depending on the value of gold, they’re worth about $10,000. Prizes minted after 1985 are plated with 24-karat gold.

The price range for Nobel Prizes at auction is all over the place. Which ones sell for the most money? I’ve been trying to figure out which categories are worth more. The fewer the words you need to explain why a person won the Nobel, the more it sells for. With Watson, it’s “DNA.” No need to explain. “DNA” is enough. With Feynman, you can just say “Feynman.” No one is going to ask me to explain quantum electrodynamics, thank God.

How often does Feynman material come up at auction? It’s super-rare. There have been two manuscripts by Feynman to come to market. One was at Sotheby’s in 2006–lecture notes from one of his students, who was helping transcribe them. The other was a sheet of calculations he signed to Egon Lehmkuhl, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2008. Do you know who bought that?

No. I bought it. I was a dealer at the time. I sold it and I started looking for Feynman material obsessively. Those two manuscripts that came up were total flukes. All his material is in the archives at Caltech. Since then, four copies of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! that he signed and gave to friends have come up. One of them sold at Sotheby’s last year for $43,750.

What else comes with Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize as part of the lot? There’s the Nobel, the box it comes in, the diploma, and two programs. One says things like ‘the limo comes at this time, this is a white-tie party, you’ll eat this meal.’ The other is a program with translations of the Nobel speeches. On the back, Feynman has doodled Feynman diagrams. To get Feynman diagrams on the back of a Nobel Prize ceremony program is pretty cool.

Has a Feynman diagram drawn by Feynman ever gone to auction before? Prior to this, no. There are other manuscript lots in the sale that have Feynman diagrams.

I’m surprised that more Feynman material hasn’t managed to escape to the market, here and there. Yeah. Again, because he gave just about everything to Caltech, what stayed at his house were things he probably thought weren’t important. But when you look at them, you realize they’re extremely important. Final manuscripts don’t tell you much. How he gets there is much more interesting. What you see in the manuscripts [offered in other lots in the November 30 sale] is how he gets there. You see how he gets from A to Z.

What other Feynman pieces are in the sale besides Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize? There are about 40 lots. They include a tambourine, very conveniently signed by him, thank you Richard Feynman, which he bought in Copacabana, Brazil. He talks about it in Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and it’s torn from being played too much. There’s his undergraduate copy of Paul Dirac’s The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, with his handwritten annotations. Some [pages] have very heavy annotation. One says ‘prove this one day’ or ‘figure it out one day’–it’s the book that made Feynman Feynman. [Later she clarified: The notation is “analyze this some day”, and it’s in a section about the polarization of photons.] There are transcripts from the Oppenheimer hearing. There are some arithmetic books from his undergraduate years. The books are really, really interesting. He lived in a frat house at MIT. One book has his MIT address and his address in Far Rockaway. Then another book just has the MIT address–a shift that says ‘This is my home now.’ There are clues that tell you about the young Feynman.

Whoa, whoa. What was it like for you to look through all that stuff? Honestly, I teared up. I could not believe it. I could not believe it. I had said to a colleague the year before that the only Nobel Prize I wanted to sell is Richard Feynman’s. To get that call… I’m a specialist in science and technology. I don’t talk about fate, but it felt like cosmic alignment to get that call.

The estimate on Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize is $800,000 to $1.2 million. The world auction record for a Nobel Prize is $4.7 million. Do you think Feynman’s has a chance to approach or beat the record? I’m optimistic it will exceed the estimate, but at the end of the day, it’s just an estimate. I don’t know how it will do until the day of the auction, but it’s not… it’s such a weird thing to say, but it’s not a regular Nobel Prize. Because Richard Feynman is a celebrity, he’s in a different category. There’s no comparable [no lot sold before at auction] that’s exactly like it. It’s an unusual situation. The work [that the Nobel Prize recognizes] is tremendously important and the personality is tremendously important. That Venn diagram is what buyers look for.

The Nobel Prize world auction record belongs to one that was awarded to a scientist. Why? Why hasn’t a Nobel Prize for Literature or Peace sold for more? Part of it is looking at the demographics of the buyers. If you look at the Forbes 500, a lot of the wealth today comes from or relates to science. And a lot of people are motivated by nostalgia, a time when they were happy and young. With Feynman, bidders remember studying his work in college or reading Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and being inspired by him. It’s not that Nobel Prizes for Peace or Literature are less important. There are just fewer buyers.

How many Nobel Prizes have you handled? How is this one different? I’ve handled six or less. The others were certainly important and exciting, but this one got my pulse going. You try not to be, how can I say it, emotionally involved in a sale, because sometimes, things don’t sell. This is something I’ve been obsessed with. Feynman is my favorite scientist of all time. I’ve got pictures of him in my office. I don’t know how I’m going to top this one, let’s put it like that.

How to bid: Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize is lot 67 in the History of Science & Technology sale at Sotheby’s New York on November 30, 2018.

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

Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Cassandra Hatton on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Cassandra Hatton spoke to The Hot Bid in July 2018 about an Apollo 13 space-flown flight plan, which ultimately sold for $275,000–more than six times its high estimate.

If you haven’t yet read Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! yet, you have a treat ahead of you. Purchase it from an independent bookseller, such as The Strand Bookstore in New York City.

In case you missed it above, here’s the link to background on the Feynman van, as well as a website about Feynman himself.

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

Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize for Physics Could Sell for $1.2 Million


The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Richard Feynman in 1965 for his contributions to creating a new quantum electrodynamics.

What you see: The Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Richard Feynman in 1965 for his contributions to creating a new quantum electrodynamics. Sotheby’s estimates it at $800,000 to $1.2 million.

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

In the press release for the sale and in the raw lot notes for the Nobel Prize, Feynman is described as a “rock star of physics” and “one of the most beloved scientists of all time.” What makes him so? I think what earns him the title of the “rock star of physics” is his personality–who he was as a human, and his intellectual capacity. If you look at other physicists of his caliber, you don’t see relatable humans with the same intellect. You could compare Feynman to Einstein, but Feynman loved teaching, and it was more important to him than theoretical work. Rock stars transcend their genres. They’re not just musicians. Feynman transcended his work. He would always say there’s nothing magical here, that he was just very curious, worked hard on the questions, and figured it out. But he inspired people, and he imparted excitement to people.

Feynman died 30 years ago, but he’s just as popular now as he was when he was alive. How has he managed to persist? Why hasn’t his memory faded? Partly it’s because of his personality, who he was. A lot of scientists are best known for their work. With others, the subject that won the prize is far more famous than the person who did the work. Because Feynman was such a popular figure, he was able to stay popular.

Have his books and his former students played a role in keeping his memory alive? He taught so many people who went on to teach other people who are super-successful and doing things they love to do. Not all are physicists, but they apply what they learned from Feynman to their lives. One of his biggest lessons was to enjoy life and enjoy what you’re doing. I’ve met many of his students, and they’re generally happy, fun-loving people. And I think the books definitely help.

It’s interesting that Feynman’s fame persists without the help of an Academy Award-winning film, such as A Beautiful Mind. At the end of the day, an Oscar-winning film is just an Oscar-winning film. Feynman doesn’t need a film. He became his own legend. He’s one of the rare people who was human, fun-loving, and also a fun-loving genius. He defied the stereotype of the scientist in a lab, not interacting people, with no social skills. He was the opposite of that.

Feynman won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for work on quantum electrodynamics. Using non-technical language, can you explain why his contribution to science was such a big deal? Feynman was asked the same question, and he said, “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.” To be frank, I don’t understand it completely.

Feynman was one of three who earned the 1965 prize for work on this problem. Did he work directly with his fellow winners, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga? They were all working on similar problems independently, but they knew about each other and were aware of each other’s work. Schwinger and Tomonaga took a mathematical approach to how to reconcile quantum mechanics, a 19th century science, with quantum electrodynamics, a 20th century science. Feynman’s approach was completely original and took a completely different direction. One of the ways he explained it it was by coming up with Feynman diagrams [click those words to see what a Feynman diagram looks like]. Those diagrams really revolutionized how we do quantum electrodynamics. They’re standard now.

How did Feynman learn that he’d won the Nobel Prize? He got a phone call at 4 am from a reporter. My understanding is he was unhappy about it [both the crazy-early phone call and the news of the win]. He asked his wife, Gweneth, how he could get out of it. He had a good life, and he knew the win would change things. I think the way it goes is she said, ‘Dear, the publicity would be worse if you don’t accept the prize.’ So he went to Stockholm and ended up having a great time. Feynman had been raised with a suspicion of institutions and authority. [Receiving the prize] played into his reluctance, because it was another symbol of the establishment. But he realized the machine had started running, and it’s harder to stop the machine than go along with it.

What did Feynman do with his share of the Nobel Prize money? He spent part of it on a vacation house in Mexico, and he bought a van. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which they take the Richard Feynman van and drive down to Mexico and stay in Richard Feynman’s vacation home.

Have the other two Nobel Prizes in Physics for 1965 come to auction? No. I keep a spreadsheet of all the Nobel Prizes ever sold. I’ve been obsessed with the market for Nobels for a long time–I started tracking them in 2012. They have not come up.

How have you seen the market for Nobel Prizes change over time? A few had come up, three or four, since 1988. Then Francis Crick’s Nobel sold at Heritage Auctions for $2.2 million in 2013, and it kind of sparked a flurry. It was the highest price ever paid for a Nobel, and it really got a lot of attention. It was followed by James Watson’s Nobel Prize selling at Christie’s in 2014 for $4.7 million. What’s really interesting is most of what we sell has no inherent value, but the story is what is valuable. Whereas a Nobel Prize actually has a value. Prizes minted before 1985 are made from 23-karat solid gold. Depending on the value of gold, they’re worth about $10,000. Prizes minted after 1985 are plated with 24-karat gold.

The price range for Nobel Prizes at auction is all over the place. Which ones sell for the most money? I’ve been trying to figure out which categories are worth more. The fewer the words you need to explain why a person won the Nobel, the more it sells for. With Watson, it’s “DNA.” No need to explain. “DNA” is enough. With Feynman, you can just say “Feynman.” No one is going to ask me to explain quantum electrodynamics, thank God.

How often does Feynman material come up at auction? It’s super-rare. There have been two manuscripts by Feynman to come to market. One was at Sotheby’s in 2006–lecture notes from one of his students, who was helping transcribe them. The other was a sheet of calculations he signed to Egon Lehmkuhl, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2008. Do you know who bought that?

No. I bought it. I was a dealer at the time. I sold it and I started looking for Feynman material obsessively. Those two manuscripts that came up were total flukes. All his material is in the archives at Caltech. Since then, four copies of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! that he signed and gave to friends have come up. One of them sold at Sotheby’s last year for $43,750.

What else comes with the Nobel Prize as part of the lot? There’s the Nobel, the box it comes in, the diploma, and two programs. One says things like ‘the limo comes at this time, this is a white-tie party, you’ll eat this meal.’ The other is a program with translations of the Nobel speeches. On the back, Feynman has doodled Feynman diagrams. To get Feynman diagrams on the back of a Nobel Prize ceremony program is pretty cool.

Has a Feynman diagram drawn by Feynman ever gone to auction before? Prior to this, no. There are other manuscript lots in the sale that have Feynman diagrams.

I’m surprised that more Feynman material hasn’t managed to escape to the market, here and there. Yeah. Again, because he gave just about everything to Caltech, what stayed at his house were things he probably thought weren’t important. But when you look at them, you realize they’re extremely important. Final manuscripts don’t tell you much. How he gets there is much more interesting. What you see in the manuscripts [offered in other lots in the November 30 sale] is how he gets there. You see how he gets from A to Z.

What other Feynman pieces are in the sale? There are about 40 lots. They include a tambourine, very conveniently signed by him, thank you Richard Feynman, which he bought in Copacabana, Brazil. He talks about it in Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and it’s torn from being played too much. There’s his undergraduate copy of Paul Dirac’s The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, with his handwritten annotations. Some [pages] have very heavy annotation. One says ‘prove this one day’ or ‘figure it out one day’–it’s the book that made Feynman Feynman. [Later she clarified: The notation is “analyze this some day”, and it’s in a section about the polarization of photons.] There are transcripts from the Oppenheimer hearing. There are some arithmetic books from his undergraduate years. The books are really, really interesting. He lived in a frat house at MIT. One book has his MIT address and his address in Far Rockaway. Then another book just has the MIT address–a shift that says ‘This is my home now.’ There are clues that tell you about the young Feynman.

Whoa, whoa. What was it like for you to look through all that stuff? Honestly, I teared up. I could not believe it. I could not believe it. I had said to a colleague the year before that the only Nobel Prize I wanted to sell is Richard Feynman’s. To get that call… I’m a specialist in science and technology. I don’t talk about fate, but it felt like cosmic alignment to get that call.

The estimate on the Feynman Nobel Prize is $800,000 to $1.2 million. The world auction record for a Nobel Prize is $4.7 million. Do you think Feynman’s has a chance to approach or beat the record? I’m optimistic it will exceed the estimate, but at the end of the day, it’s just an estimate. I don’t know how it will do until the day of the auction, but it’s not… it’s such a weird thing to say, but it’s not a regular Nobel Prize. Because Richard Feynman is a celebrity, he’s in a different category. There’s no comparable [no lot sold before at auction] that’s exactly like it. It’s an unusual situation. The work [that the Nobel Prize recognizes] is tremendously important and the personality is tremendously important. That Venn diagram is what buyers look for.

The Nobel Prize world auction record belongs to one that was awarded to a scientist. Why? Why hasn’t a Nobel Prize for Literature or Peace sold for more? Part of it is looking at the demographics of the buyers. If you look at the Forbes 500, a lot of the wealth today comes from or relates to science. And a lot of people are motivated by nostalgia, a time when they were happy and young. With Feynman, bidders remember studying his work in college or reading Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and being inspired by him. It’s not that Nobel Prizes for Peace or Literature are less important. There are just fewer buyers.

How many Nobel Prizes have you handled? How is this one different? I’ve handled six or less. The others were certainly important and exciting, but this one got my pulse going. You try not to be, how can I say it, emotionally involved in a sale, because sometimes, things don’t sell. This is something I’ve been obsessed with. Feynman is my favorite scientist of all time. I’ve got pictures of him in my office. I don’t know how I’m going to top this one, let’s put it like that.

How to bid: Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize is lot 67 in the History of Science & Technology sale at Sotheby’s New York on November 30, 2018.

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

Sotheby’s is on Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow Cassandra Hatton on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Cassandra Hatton spoke to The Hot Bid in July 2018 about an Apollo 13 space-flown flight plan, which ultimately sold for $275,000–more than six times its high estimate.

If you haven’t yet read Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! yet, you have a treat ahead of you. Purchase it from an independent bookseller, such as The Strand Bookstore in New York City.

In case you missed it above, here’s the link to background on the Feynman van, as well as a website about Feynman himself.

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

Chirp! A Jess Blackstone Robin Carving Sold for… (Scroll Down and See)

A miniature robin, carved and painted by Jess Blackstone circa 1968 or 1969.

Update: The Jess Blackstone robin sold for $584.

What you see: A miniature robin, carved and painted by Jess Blackstone circa 1968 or 1969. Skinner estimates it at $300 to $500.

The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.

So, who was Jess Blackstone, and how did he come to carve and paint miniatures of birds? Born 1909, died 1988, a resident of Melrose, Massachusetts, and moved to New Hampshire in the late 1930s, when he became a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. His dad carved mini-songbirds, and he learned to paint and carve from him. That seemed to shape where Blackstone went. He and his dad would have good-natured competitions to paint the smallest bird, or the most elaborate bird. He definitely eclipsed his dad in quality and production, but it [carving and painting bird sculptures] was a family business at one point.

Did Jess Blackstone live out his life in New Hampshire, or did he travel? He stayed there the rest of his life, in a simple house with a lot of land. He was able to support a wife and an adopted daughter with his carvings. When he was in the military in 1944 and 1945, he listed 58 birds that he encountered or identified in Germany, some of which he actually carved once he got home.

I take it he chose that place so he could look out his window and see birds? He had a lot of land, and he was a feeder type of guy. The birds were much more plentiful to see [in the mid-20th century], particularly warblers and tanagers and certain sparrows, which only come during the spring and fall migrations. He carved 92 different species of songbirds, based on an analysis of records at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

How prolific was Jess Blackstone? He’s estimated to have carved 8,500 birds. More than 2,500 were chickadees. Since 2005, as far back as our digital records go, we’ve sold 132 Jess Blackstone carvings.

Did he carve duck decoys? Decoys, no, but there’s a distinction to be made between these decorative carvings and decoys. Blackstone birds were never meant to attract a member of its own species. He carved ducks, yes, but there aren’t many among his output. They’re all decorative, and the overwhelming majority are songbirds.

What do we know about how Jess Blackstone worked? We think he observed birds a great deal. We think he bird-watched the way we bird-watch. He’d put out a feeder, or hike, and see them. There’s a story that if a bird hit his window, he would study it. He was so good at capturing the personality of a bird that he had to have watched them. Once he had a template for the shape and colors of a bird, it was almost paint-by-number. He would follow his template after producing one bird.

And what do we know about his approach to carving? We know he used white pine. In 2012 we sold a trade sign, a tabletop display mounted on a wood base, with a robin perched on it, that said ‘All birds are made of white pine.’ White pine is easy to carve, light, and plentiful. As far as I can tell, he never deviated from carving white pine.

What characteristics mark a Jess Blackstone bird carving? He was an inveterate record-keeper. He always signed his birds the same way, with an intertwined ‘JB’. There’s also a nice detail–he called it ‘feathering the bird’–a very subtle textured effect [of] parallel lines that run the length of the body. It prevents the bird from being completely flat. And the birds always stand on a grey stone-like base.

Jess Blackstone bird carvings are not photo-realistic, but they’re not folk art, either. Yes. They have a liveliness, a personality. They have a great presence. They straddle the line between realism and charm. Because they make you feel so good, they appeal to people who are not folk art collectors and not bird collectors, necessarily. The man who runs this department has a Jess Blackstone bluebird at his house. It speaks to how universal their appeal is. Though Blackstone created 8,500 of them, and 2,500 chickadees, he was never bored by them. It takes love to carve that many.

Why did he make so many chickadees? We don’t know, exactly. Maybe it dovetails with how he marketed and sold his work. He’d do shows at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and developed a following. I think the majority of his business was from craft shows. He knew his carvings were good, and he sought sophisticated audiences for them. People would ask him to carve a certain bird. He painted five times as many chickadees as any other bird. They’re great-looking, and they’re the state bird of Massachusetts. Maybe he carved so many because it was like playing the hits–certain bands out there have to play the one. He carved 267 robins, and this is number 240. Bluebirds and goldfinches, he did more than 500 each. He did 454 mallards, the biggest non-songbird. It looks like the robin is his tenth most popular songbird.

He signed his birds, but did he date them? He didn’t typically date them, no. There are numbers on the bottom, but there’s disagreement about what the numbers mean. He started numbering each bird by species. There may not be a number one chickadee, but there is a number 1,150 chickadee. He carved about 30 to 40 birds in a typical month, and up to 60 in a really productive month. The higher the number, the closer to his death [it was made]. He stopped around 1980 because he wasn’t well enough to carve in the last eight years of his life. Some of the ones from the late 1970s are not as high-quality as this robin.

Does his having made about 2,500 chickadees mean that chickadees were his favorite bird? Or does that just reflect what the market wanted? I wish I knew the answer to that question. I couldn’t find if he made observations about the birds themselves, other than his output. There’s no indication of if he weighted one bird more than another in his mind.

Where do collectors put Jess Blackstone bird carvings? Any flat surface. Mantelpieces, bookshelves, custom-made cabinets. They’re easy to amass. People who have one tend to have more than one.

What was Jess Blackstone’s golden age? It depends on how you define it. His output seems to have been regular. Toward the end of his career, he was better-known. In 1947, he asked $2 for a bluebird. By the early 1980s [after he had stopped working, but presumably had a stock of finished works], he charged up to $100 per bird. He had good days and he had bad days, but I don’t think his quality dipped very far, if at all. Because he was prolific, well-known, and consistent, [collectors judge based on] the condition of the bird, and the earlier the number, the better it does.

What’s the auction record for a Jess Blackstone bird carving? We’ve had one sell for $2,600–a a pair of purple finches mounted on driftwood. It’s rare for him to have two birds in one piece. [For individual birds,] in 2012, we sold a European bird for more than $2,100. It was a crowd-pleasing bird that was odd for him. If you turned it one way, it looked like a yellow wagtail, and if you turned it another way, it looked like a pied wagtail. It appears to be unique, and it was carved from a drawing he gathered overseas, when he was in the service. Rarer birds are the ones that tend to bring the most.

What is this Blackstone robin like in person? Is it actual size? It’s been on my desk all day. It’s tentative, it has an inquisitive stance, but it’s confident in its own way. It’s looking for its next worm. It’s probably an eighth of the size of a real robin, maybe a tenth of the size. The bigger it is, the harder it is to collect and display. One of the appeals of Jess Blackstone birds is they’re so easy to collect. Four look fine, and 30 doesn’t look overwhelming. They display nicely together. With 30 birds at full size, you have to commit. You don’t have to commit as readily to 30 miniature birds.

How to bid: The Jess Blackstone robin is lot 1576 in Skinner‘s Americana Online auction, which opened on October 25, 2018 and closes on November 4, 2018.

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.

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Skinner.

Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid in February 2017 for a piece on an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

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Chirp! Skinner Has a Flock of Jess Blackstone Bird Carvings, Including a Robin That Could Fly Away With $500

1576Miniature birds “Hand Carved and Painted by Blackstone”

What you see: A miniature robin, carved and painted by Jess Blackstone circa 1968 or 1969. Skinner estimates it at $300 to $500.

The expert: Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner.

So, who was Jess Blackstone, and how did he come to carve and paint miniatures of birds? Born 1909, died 1988, a resident of Melrose, Massachusetts, and moved to New Hampshire in the late 1930s, when he became a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. His dad carved mini-songbirds, and he learned to paint and carve from him. That seemed to shape where Blackstone went. He and his dad would have good-natured competitions to paint the smallest bird, or the most elaborate bird. He definitely eclipsed his dad in quality and production, but it [carving and painting bird sculptures] was a family business at one point.

Did Jess Blackstone live out his life in New Hampshire, or did he travel? He stayed there the rest of his life, in a simple house with a lot of land. He was able to support a wife and an adopted daughter with his carvings. When he was in the military in 1944 and 1945, he listed 58 birds that he encountered or identified in Germany, some of which he actually carved once he got home.

I take it he chose that place so he could look out his window and see birds? He had a lot of land, and he was a feeder type of guy. The birds were much more plentiful to see [in the mid-20th century], particularly warblers and tanagers and certain sparrows, which only come during the spring and fall migrations. He carved 92 different species of songbirds, based on an analysis of records at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

How prolific was Jess Blackstone? He’s estimated to have carved 8,500 birds. More than 2,500 were chickadees. Since 2005, as far back as our digital records go, we’ve sold 132 Jess Blackstone carvings.

Did he carve duck decoys? Decoys, no, but there’s a distinction to be made between these decorative carvings and decoys. Blackstone birds were never meant to attract a member of its own species. He carved ducks, yes, but there aren’t many among his output. They’re all decorative, and the overwhelming majority are songbirds.

What do we know about how Jess Blackstone worked? We think he observed birds a great deal. We think he bird-watched the way we bird-watch. He’d put out a feeder, or hike, and see them. There’s a story that if a bird hit his window, he would study it. He was so good at capturing the personality of a bird that he had to have watched them. Once he had a template for the shape and colors of a bird, it was almost paint-by-number. He would follow his template after producing one bird.

And what do we know about his approach to carving? We know he used white pine. In 2012 we sold a trade sign, a tabletop display mounted on a wood base, with a robin perched on it, that said ‘All birds are made of white pine.’ White pine is easy to carve, light, and plentiful. As far as I can tell, he never deviated from carving white pine.

What characteristics mark a Jess Blackstone bird carving? He was an inveterate record-keeper. He always signed his birds the same way, with an intertwined ‘JB’. There’s also a nice detail–he called it ‘feathering the bird’–a very subtle textured effect [of] parallel lines that run the length of the body. It prevents the bird from being completely flat. And the birds always stand on a grey stone-like base.

Jess Blackstone bird carvings are not photo-realistic, but they’re not folk art, either. Yes. They have a liveliness, a personality. They have a great presence. They straddle the line between realism and charm. Because they make you feel so good, they appeal to people who are not folk art collectors and not bird collectors, necessarily. The man who runs this department has a Jess Blackstone bluebird at his house. It speaks to how universal their appeal is. Though Blackstone created 8,500 of them, and 2,500 chickadees, he was never bored by them. It takes love to carve that many.

Why did he make so many chickadees? We don’t know, exactly. Maybe it dovetails with how he marketed and sold his work. He’d do shows at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and developed a following. I think the majority of his business was from craft shows. He knew his carvings were good, and he sought sophisticated audiences for them. People would ask him to carve a certain bird. He painted five times as many chickadees as any other bird. They’re great-looking, and they’re the state bird of Massachusetts. Maybe he carved so many because it was like playing the hits–certain bands out there have to play the one. He carved 267 robins, and this is number 240. Bluebirds and goldfinches, he did more than 500 each. He did 454 mallards, the biggest non-songbird. It looks like the robin is his tenth most popular songbird.

He signed his birds, but did he date them? He didn’t typically date them, no. There are numbers on the bottom, but there’s disagreement about what the numbers mean. He started numbering each bird by species. There may not be a number one chickadee, but there is a number 1,150 chickadee. He carved about 30 to 40 birds in a typical month, and up to 60 in a really productive month. The higher the number, the closer to his death [it was made]. He stopped around 1980 because he wasn’t well enough to carve in the last eight years of his life. Some of the ones from the late 1970s are not as high-quality as this robin.

Does his having made about 2,500 chickadees mean that chickadees were his favorite bird? Or does that just reflect what the market wanted? I wish I knew the answer to that question. I couldn’t find if he made observations about the birds themselves, other than his output. There’s no indication of if he weighted one bird more than another in his mind.

Where do collectors put Jess Blackstone bird carvings? Any flat surface. Mantelpieces, bookshelves, custom-made cabinets. They’re easy to amass. People who have one tend to have more than one.

What was Jess Blackstone’s golden age? It depends on how you define it. His output seems to have been regular. Toward the end of his career, he was better-known. In 1947, he asked $2 for a bluebird. By the early 1980s [after he had stopped working, but presumably had a stock of finished works], he charged up to $100 per bird. He had good days and he had bad days, but I don’t think his quality dipped very far, if at all. Because he was prolific, well-known, and consistent, [collectors judge based on] the condition of the bird, and the earlier the number, the better it does.

What’s the auction record for a Jess Blackstone bird carving? We’ve had one sell for $2,600–a a pair of purple finches mounted on driftwood. It’s rare for him to have two birds in one piece. [For individual birds,] in 2012, we sold a European bird for more than $2,100. It was a crowd-pleasing bird that was odd for him. If you turned it one way, it looked like a yellow wagtail, and if you turned it another way, it looked like a pied wagtail. It appears to be unique, and it was carved from a drawing he gathered overseas, when he was in the service. Rarer birds are the ones that tend to bring the most.

What is this Jess Blackstone robin like in person? Is it actual size? It’s been on my desk all day. It’s tentative, it has an inquisitive stance, but it’s confident in its own way. It’s looking for its next worm. It’s probably an eighth of the size of a real robin, maybe a tenth of the size. The bigger it is, the harder it is to collect and display. One of the appeals of Jess Blackstone birds is they’re so easy to collect. Four look fine, and 30 doesn’t look overwhelming. They display nicely together. With 30 birds at full size, you have to commit. You don’t have to commit as readily to 30 miniature birds.

How to bid: The Jess Blackstone robin is lot 1576 in Skinner‘s Americana Online auction, which opened on October 25, 2018 and closes on November 4, 2018.

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.

You can follow Skinner on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Skinner.

Chris Barber spoke to The Hot Bid in February 2017 for a piece on an unusually charming double folk portrait that ultimately sold for $9,840.

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

SOLD! A Copy of Aurora Australis, the First Book Made in Antarctica, Fetched $97,500 at Bonhams

A copy of Aurora Australis, created by members of the 1908-1909 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton. It is the first book to be written and produced on the continent of Antarctica.

Update: Bonhams sold the copy of Aurora Australis for $97,500.

What you see: A copy of Aurora Australis, created by members of the 1908-1909 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton. It is the first book to be written and produced on the continent of Antarctica. Bonhams estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.

The expert: Ian Ehling, director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams New York.

So, how much of a pain in the ass was it for Shackleton and his crew to haul a printing press down to east Antarctica along with all the other stuff they needed for the 1908-1909 polar expedition? It was a small printing press, described as being the size of an oven–picture the size of a four-burner gas oven. It was a very heavy piece of equipment. And take into consideration that they brought the type and the paper and a special printing press to do etchings.

They brought two printing presses? Yes. You can’t do the printing and the etchings on the same press. The thing about Antarctic winters is they’re very dark and very cold. If you have a bunch of guys sitting in close quarters all winter, it’s great to have a project to occupy them. Shackleton, having been on previous expeditions, thought ahead and came up with an interesting project.

What challenges did the explorers face when producing the first book made in Antarctica? That was really one of the most difficult things. They were in very small quarters in extreme temperatures and dealing with poor lighting–it’s dark all winter long. They had to be incredibly careful when going about printing the thing. The type was metal, which freezes to your fingertips, and the ink congeals because of the cold. They used candles to heat up the ink, and they had to move the candle around to get the ink to the right temperature. They had to limit the number of types they brought with them, so the printer could only print two pages at a time. In addition to that, the floors were filthy and it was damp everywhere. They needed to keep the pages dry. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to produce a fair number of copies under those conditions.

The lot notes say there’s a blind-stamped penguin motif on the spine of Aurora Australis. What is blind-stamping, and how did the explorers apply the motif? Blind-stamping means there isn’t any color used. It’s just the impression of the stamp. They must have brought a hand tool with them to decorate the binding. Shackleton sent two or three crew members to a London print shop to apprentice for two or three weeks before the expedition. They probably arrived at a penguin as a printer’s device, which would have been metal on a wooden handle. They would have pressed it against the spine to bang it into the spine’s leather before it was bound.

How often have copies of Aurora Australis come up at auction? It’s an incredibly rare book that doesn’t come up often. The initial idea was they would print 100 copies of the book, but in a letter Shackleton wrote to Pierpont Morgan he says they bound 80 copies. A good third of them are in institutions. The others are very likely in private collections. I checked the auction records and seven copies have been offered in the U.S. and Europe in the last 20 years. This is the third copy that we have handled.

To make the covers of the copies, the explorers scavenged wood from their own expedition supply crates. The covers of this book have the word ‘OATMEAL’ stenciled on one side and ‘ISH ANTARCT … EDITION 190’ on another. How does the presence of those words and partial words affect the book’s value? That is to be determined, but this copy in particular is great because it has the full word ‘OATMEAL’ on it and the truncated ‘ISH ANTARCT … EDITION 190’. It’s incredibly beautiful and makes it attractive to have. Others just say ‘BUTTER’ or ‘BAKED BEANS’. Having the ‘OATMEAL’ and the extra bits on the back is very attractive. As a collector I’d definitely be drawn to a copy because of its stenciling and wording.

I take it more than one group of collectors will be interested in this copy of Aurora Australis. How many different constituencies will be in the hunt? Anyone who collects travel and exploration is interested. Then there are people who collect books on the Arctic and Antarctic. And I would say this is considered a high-spot publication because it was the first book printed on Antarctica. It’s a very cool book. There are collectors who go for the best of the best, and this book appeals to those collectors. People collecting limited editions would go after this as well. It’s not just the first book printed in Antarctica–the explorers looked after the aesthetic beauty of the book. If you look at the colophon page, the typography is beautiful, and it’s printed in two colors, red and black. It indicates the book was published as a fine press book.

What condition is this copy in? It’s in good condition. There’s some slight rubbing to the leather spine, which is kind of inevitable. The boards are perfect.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot about Aurora Australis as a book first and as symbol of Shackleton and polar exploration, but I haven’t heard much about its actual contents. Is Aurora Australis a good book? [Laughs] Well, I haven’t read through it. It’s fun. Many people who were on the expedition were published authors. There is some talent there, but there aren’t earth-shattering, amazing stories.

What’s the world auction record for a copy of Aurora Australis? It’s £122,500, ($185,894), set at the Franklin Brooke-Hitching sale at Sotheby’s in 2015. That collection was incredibly beautiful. Brooke-Hitching was one of those collectors who collected the absolute best copies he could get. Everything in that sale achieved enormous prices. Our copy is estimated at $70,000 to $100,000 and I would expect it to go in that range.

Why will this book stick in your memory? It’s about the whole discussion we had about producing something blindfolded, essentially. It’s incredible to have it bound on these boards. You feel like you’re close to the event. To have an object that was produced there, with materials there, the shipping crates–that’s one of a kind. I’ll never forget that.

How to bid: The copy of Aurora Australis, the first book made in Antarctica, is lot 55 in Bonhams‘s Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana sale scheduled for September 25, 2018.

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.

Bonhams is on Twitter and Instagram.

Ian Ehling spoke to The Hot Bid previously about a 1935 Albert Einstein passport photo that ultimately sold for $17,500.

Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

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

WHOA! That 1834 Ornithological Book Sold for $100,000

An 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz. Pictured is the Red Curlew plate from the book.

Update: The 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz sold for $100,000–about five times what Heritage Auctions expected, and a record for this book at auction.

What you see: An 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz. Heritage Auctions estimates it around $20,000. Featured above is the Red Curlew plate from the book.

The expert: James Gannon, director of rare books for Heritage Auctions.

I see the quote in the lot notes from Rubens Borba de Moraes, the former director of the United Nations library in New York, saying, “This book is so rare that I had begun to doubt its existence,” but how many copies are there? Do we know? From what we can tell, we think this is the fifth known copy.

Can you talk about how the book came to be? Was Descourtilz the illustrator? He did illustrate it. It was toward the end of the color plate period, which ran from 1790 to 1830. It was fairly early for a hand-colored ornithological [bird] book. Audubon was contemporaneous in the 1830s. This book was never published. It was issued, and someone made lithographs that were then hand-colored, but it was never published, and never had a table of contents or text. The lithographic plates were put together in a book. I don’t know much about Descourtilz. I’d never heard of him before the book crossed my path. His dad was a botanist and a physician who did a book on the flora of the Antilles. Descourtilz did the illustrations for his father’s book. It’s better known because it was published.

The book is described as a first edition, but it was not published. Why might it have been made? It was probably a mockup, made to engender interest from publishers and get the money to be able to produce the book.

Was it intended to be sold by subscription, as Audubon’s Birds of America was?Maybe the [60] plates were issued in five groups of 12. That was the style then. Audubon published in parts. The reason they did it was so they could start reaping profits against their costs sooner.

The lot notes say the ornithological book has 60 plates. Does that mean it’s complete? I don’t know, but there’s no reason to think there were more. We call it complete. Other copies might have a similar number or a lesser number. Whether he envisioned an epic work like Audubon, we don’t know.

Are all the plates in the ornithological book as vibrant as the Red Curlew plate, shown above? Pretty much. I think it’s just a matter of [the book] being closed. We don’t know much about where it came from beyond being in the same family for decades. It probably was not handled very much over the almost 200 years since it was made.

The lot notes say the ornithological books illustrations are “heightened with gum arabic.” How did that detailing enhance the plates? Gum arabic is a clear sheen, almost a clear varnish. Lots of color plate books use it. You’d put it over the color in certain places so it created a sheen when you looked at it. It makes the plates look more vibrant, and it catches the light in different places. It would help make the plates stand out. [The effect is not visible in the photo shown.]

The book is French, but it has no text. Does that make it more appealing to American collectors, or does it not matter? It doesn’t matter in this case, because it wasn’t issued with text. The collector for this is someone who collects bird books or hand-colored plate books. Anyone sophisticated enough to spend tens of thousands on a book understands why it has no text.

And we don’t know why it wasn’t published? Descourtilz may never have found the backing. Maybe there were other reasons why it was never published. It was certainly publishable if the right circumstances existed. If there was a similar kind of thing for Audubon [Birds of America], where Audubon made lithographs and had them hand-colored to get the backing, get the money [to make it]–if that existed, it’d really be worth a lot, because it predated the book.

How did this ornithological book come to you? It came through another person on staff. She told me the family had had it for a long time, decades. The consigner had a connection to one of the people listed in the front of the book, which is why I think it sat for 80 to 100 years on a shelf. It didn’t get looked at by book fairs and dealers. They [the family] probably didn’t think about it for a long time.

How did you arrive at a value for this ornithological book? It hasn’t come on the auction market. There are so few copies around. Probably, other collectors and dealers have never seen it. There may be more copies we don’t know about that have never become public. If it sold for mid-five figures, we’d be satisfied.

What was it like to look at it for the first time? I didn’t see it until it had been researched by [Heritage Auctions] staff. We knew it was special, and we knew we wanted to use it in the advertising campaign [for the auction].

What is it like to leaf through it, and how does that experience compare to handling Audubon’s Birds of America? I’ve seen Audubon many times. Here, everything is a surprise, everything is new. Many of the plates are stunningly beautiful.

Why will it stick in your memory? How rare it is to see this book. There aren’t many around. Many more people have seen our catalog cover with the Red Curlew on it than have actually seen the book.

How to bidOiseaux brillans du Brésil is lot #45090 in the Rare Books & Maps Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on September 13, 2018.

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.

Heritage Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

James Gannon has appeared three other times on The Hot Bid, speaking about the typewriters Larry McMurtry used to write Lonesome Dove; a British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that ultimately sold for a world auction record; and an inscribed presentation copy of Jack Keroauc’s On the Road.

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

RECORD! A Near-complete Dodo Skeleton Sold for $430,000 in 2016

A nearly complete (95 percent) Dodo skeleton, assembled by a collector over the course of four decades. Maybe a dozen similarly complete Dodo skeletons exist, and all of them are in museums. In November 2016, Summers Place Auctions sold it for £280,000, or about $430,000, a world auction record for a Dodo skeleton.

What you see: A nearly complete (95 percent) Dodo skeleton, assembled by a collector over the course of four decades. Maybe a dozen similarly complete Dodo skeletons exist, and all of them are in museums. In November 2016, Summers Place Auctions sold it for £280,000, or about $430,000, a world auction record for a Dodo skeleton.

The expert: Rupert van der Werff, director of Summers Place Auctions.

How abundant are Dodo bones, generally? Are some harder to get than others, making it difficult to piece together a fuller skeleton? The way bones are found are by people walking through the swamp [on Mauritius]. Given that they come from one small swamp on one small island from one small species, they’ve never been particularly abundant.

When did Mauritius ban the export of Dodo bones? It became illegal in 2016, but it was generally considered unacceptable post-World War II.

Did the collector who consigned the skeleton set out to piece one together, or did he realize after several years that he had a nearly complete Dodo skeleton? He was a passionate collector of all things Dodo-related. He’d been acquiring bones as they popped up. He came to the realization that he may well have a skeleton, started piecing it together, and realized he did indeed have a skeleton.

How did the nearly complete Dodo skeleton come to you? We’ve sold a diplodocus, a mammoth, and an allosaurus–we’ve had some pretty fabulous star lots. The publicity and the prices we managed to achieve certainly alerted the person to us. In a way, it was natural for him to come to us.

But how did you learn of the Dodo skeleton’s existence and come to receive it? I got a call. He said what he had. It was so unlikely, but there was a chance it could actually be true. He was a few hours away. I popped in my car and went as soon as it was practicable. It was in his shed. He had mounted it. Even I, who wouldn’t pretend to be an expert, could see it was the real deal. I took pictures, talked to the owner, picked it up, and drove very carefully back to work to start the publicity rolling.

What do you do in a moment like that? I mean, he may as well have shown you a unicorn skeleton. Did you try to maintain a poker face? It is something of a Holy Grail in terms of natural history. If I’d tried to remain straight-faced, it wouldn’t have worked. It was quite extraordinary, not something I ever dreamed would happen.

How did you put an estimate on the nearly complete Dodo skeleton? There aren’t really Dodo comparables other than the skeleton that sold in 1914. I tried to negotiate with the owner for the lowest estimate he would consider acceptable and use the auction for what auctions can do–establish what something is worth on any one day.

What was your role in the auction? I was on the phone with a a pretty serious collector we’ve done a lot of business with in the past.

Were you surprised by the result? I was pleased it sold, of course. But when you find something as rare as this, as iconic as this, as exciting as this, you can’t help but getting a little carried away in your imagination and think it can go on and on.

In the material that Summers Place assembled to promote the Dodo, you noted that the last time a Dodo skeleton sold was in 1914. The Cardiff Museum paid £350 for it, but you estimate that because Britain was on the gold standard back then, the sum is equivalent to £5 million, or $6.5 million. Does this mean that the 2016 bidder got a bargain? I think so. As far as anyone knows, there’s only one in private hands. Any future discoveries belong to Mauritius. It’s unique. That word is used a lot in the art world, but it’s rarely true. In this case, it actually is. Frankly, it could have made anything [sold for anything].

And the only way this record will be beaten is if this particular Dodo skeleton returns to auction? Yes. There are no others unless a museum deaccessions, which isn’t going to happen. If it’s back to market, that’s the only chance there is.

Why are we still so fascinated by the Dodo, a bird that went extinct centuries ago? It’s clearly quite an unusual animal, and it does look a bit unfortunate. To think it existed on one little island in the Indian Ocean 300 years ago and man wiped it out, it’s incredibly sad. If it were a better-looking animal, it wouldn’t figure in the public consciousness. But it’s got a great name and an unfortunate look. Like a T-Rex, everyone has heard of one. And there are more relatively complete T-Rex skeletons than Dodo skeletons, which puts it into perspective, and shows you how special it is.

Why does this Dodo skeleton stick in your memory? Because I never considered… when I got the opportunity to include a diplodocus, I couldn’t believe it. Never in 100 years would I dream of handling a diplodocus skeleton. It’s right up there, one of the icons of natural history. If I handle a T-Rex, that’d also be incredible, and there’s probably more of a chance of getting a T-Rex than a Dodo. If anything, things like this almost transcend monetary value. It’s surprising that a private individual was able to secure it.

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RECORD! Astronaut Dave Scott’s Apollo 17 Space-flown Robbins Medal Sells for $68,750

A space-flown Apollo 17 Robbins medal owned by Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15 and the seventh man to walk on the moon. RR Auction sold it in September 2016 for $68,750--a record for a Robbins medal.

What you see: A space-flown Apollo 17 Robbins medal owned by Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15 and the seventh man to walk on the moon. RR Auction sold it in September 2016 for $68,750–a record for a Robbins medal.

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

How did Scott get this Apollo 17 Robbins medal? All astronauts had the opportunity to buy them. Dave Scott bought one for every Apollo mission, starting with Apollo 7. They’re a neat crossover between coin collecting and space flight memorabilia. These were meant for the astronauts–the general public couldn’t buy them. They had the mission logo on the front and their names [the names of the three crew members] struck on the back. They were great commemoratives.

Unlike stamps or flags, which are flat and light, silver medals have heft and weight. How did the Robbins company convince NASA to make room for several dozen medals on its Apollo spacecraft? I’m not familiar with the history of the decision. I do know it was a tradition of NASA to allow certain artifacts to be flown in space. NASA flew Robbins medals into the 1990s. It was a long tradition with the government and the astronauts.

What makes a Robbins medal valuable? Aside from being flown in space, having a letter of authenticity from an astronaut makes them extremely valuable. When Buzz Aldrin writes a letter saying, “I took this Robbins medal to the moon,” that adds value. The chain of custody matters.

If a space-flown Robbins medal lacks a letter of authenticity from an astronaut, is it still valuable? Yes. Each coin has a number stamped on its edge. We know which numbers flew [in space] and which did not. If it flew, it has value. With Dave, when he was on Apollo 15, he requested his to be number 15. Not only did he take a coin, he took a specific number because it related to the mission. I can’t imagine one more valuable.

How did Dave Scott snag the number 15 Robbins medal from the Apollo 17 series? Because he asked for it. Dave is a collector, so he understood what was neat and what made sense. These guys are engineers, they’re numbers guys.

That’s what I mean. There were two other guys on Apollo 15. How did Dave Scott claim the number 15 Apollo 17 Robbins medal for himself? Did he arm-wrestle them for it? Wrong. He was the mission commander. He outranked them. (Laughs)

How often do space-flown Robbins medals come up at auction? They appear at auction consistently, but the supply is limited and the price is going up. They’re becoming more commodified.

I understand the Robbins company struck 14-karat gold Robbins medals. How do they fit in here? They’re rarer and more desirable. They struck three to seven for each mission. All have serial numbers on them, and they were only available to the flight crew. They were made specifically to give to their wives.

Have any of the gold ones come to auction? One from Apollo 13 sold recently. We had one with a diamond in it from Apollo 11. They’re not giant coins–they’re smaller than a silver dollar, maybe a bit smaller. They’re beautiful.

Why are space-flown Apollo 17 medallions considered the most sought-after and difficult to obtain? Is it because of their limited numbers, or is it more than that? Only 80 Apollo 17 Robbins medals were flown. You can’t have a complete set of flown medals without Apollo 17. It was the last mission, and it’s rare. They come up once every couple of years, and we’re actively seeking them out. People are not willing to sell them.

This space-flown Robbins medal has a third-party grade of MS67. Did the high grade drive the medal’s record price? It was in great condition, but I don’t know if the grade made a difference to the person who bought it. He needed it for his collection.

Dave Scott is still alive. Could you talk about what prompted him to consign back in September 2016? Why did he sell the space-flown Robbins medal then? Most of the astronauts donated lots of material to universities, and a lot gave things to their children and grandchildren. There’s stuff left over that their families don’t want, and they want to get it into the hands of people who would want them. Dave Scott cares a lot. He’s got things that went to the moon, he’s in his eighties, and he’s a collector. He will write a whole dissertation about what it [a given piece he owned during his NASA career] meant. These things will be lost unless they’re documented and put in the hands of people. On a side note, Alan Shepard lived in Derry, New Hampshire. His family had a garage sale. Someone bought a bureau for $50, and in it was a letter he wrote to his parents, talking about being considered for the Mercury 7 selection program. We sold it for $106,000. These astronauts–if things are not documented and curated, they’ll be put on the curb, like [those countless mothers who infamously threw out their kids’] baseball cards. It happens! (Laughs)

What was the previous record for a space-flown Robbins medal? Was it an Apollo 11? We sold an Apollo 11 for $56,000. It was an interesting one, owned by a nephew of Neil Armstrong, but it wasn’t the previous record. In May 2013, we sold Gene Cernan’s Apollo 17 Robbins medal for $61,000. The Apollo 17, because it’s rarest, sold for more.

The September 2016 auction took place entirely online. When did you know you had a record for a space-flown Robbins medal? We realized it that night, and we put a press release out right away. We’re very proud every time we set a record.

How long do you think the record for a space-flown Robbins medal will stand? I don’t know, but records are made to be broken. With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up, we may see a lot of excitement in the space collectibles market. The attention is going to be intense. I wouldn’t be surprised if we break the record in a year or two.

What else could challenge it? Maybe Neil Armstrong’s 14-karat gold Robbins medal?   I don’t know if that’s ever going to come to market. If it did, it would have a pretty high estimate. It would be incredibly valuable, and it would break the record.

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Livingston spoke to The Hot Bid in 2017 about a ring that Clyde Barrow made in prison to give to his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker.

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SOLD! Albert Einstein’s 1935 Passport Photo Commands $17,500 at Bonhams

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.

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 Albert Einstein 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 Albert Einstein 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 Albert Einstein passport photo 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 the Albert Einstein passport photo? 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 Albert Einstein passport photo 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.

How to bid: The Albert Einstein passport photo is lot 76 in Bonhams‘s June 12, 2018 Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in New York.

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BOOM! An Australian Fireworks Opal Commanded $162,500 at Bonhams

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Update: The Australian black-bodied “fireworks” opal sold for $162,500.

What you see: An exceptional black opal with a “fireworks” pattern, found at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia. Bonhams estimates it at $120,000 to $140,000.

The expert: Claudia Florian, co-consulting director of Bonhams’s natural history department in Los Angeles.

Where are opals found? They can come from different locations. They can be found at the sites of former volcanic activity, or where silica deposits itself in a sedimentary fashion. Australia is an example of the sedimentary form. The colors that the opals will have depend on the trace elements in the spot where they are found. The opals at Coober Pedy, Australia have a white body color. A thousand kilometers away from there, at Lightning Ridge, the opals have a rich, deep, black body color in which you find this play of fire. It’s a much more dramatic contrast.

Is Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, Australia known for opals? Yes. The first major discovery was made in 1905. This particular opal was found 20 to 30 years ago. It’s never been up at auction before.

How did this Australian fireworks opal become so wildly colorful? It’s a very random occurrence, actually, that determines whether opals have a pattern or not. What makes the color so vivid is really the beauty of nature and the way the spherules [tiny spheres] of silica manage to create a pattern.

Did the Australian fireworks opal come out of the ground looking like this, or did a stone-cutter bring out its beauty? Its beauty would have to be revealed by the stone-cutter. Miners can agonize over keeping an opal in its rough state or cutting it away.  It’s an unknown thing until you actually open it up, and you need an expert polisher who will work with you to take away the layers until they reveal the best-looking stone. The cutter kept it as large as possible with a gem-quality pattern. Those are decisions you have to make when going through the gem-cutting process.

Do winning bidders tend to keep an opal as-is, or do they have it set in a custom piece of jewelry? It’s a little bit of both. I have male and female customers. Men like to invest in opals and see them as an asset class, as a segment of their portfolio. Women tend to buy smaller stones that they can mount into a ring or a pendant. They tend not to go for specimen-size opals. Guys will buy the superlatives, such as the world’s biggest black opal.

Why is the word phenomenon in quotes in the title of the auction? I’ve been doing auctions for 35 years. I set myself a challenge–how could I package it in a way that looks different and fresh, and try to educate people? By focusing on the vocabulary of gemology, and what’s behind it. When we go to gemological school, we focus on what are known as “phenomenal” gemstones. It’s a reference to optical phenomena. Opalescence is an optical phenomenon. Iridescence is an optical phenomenon. You can have a sapphire that’s transparent, and you can have a sapphire with inclusions that line up along a six-ray radial axis, so when you cut and polish it into a cabochon shape, you see a six-ray star. That’s an optical phenomenon called asterism. Rubies can have it, and even peridots and garnets can have it. I decided [for this auction] in addition to focusing on the world localities of opals, I’d make a theme of gems with optical phenomena.

Are there any aspects of the Australian fireworks opal that the camera did not catch? I think we got a pretty darn good photo of it, but the beauty of opals–the color shifts with the shift in light conditions. They’re best seen in person. But the photographers at Bonhams are the best in the business.

The lot notes call this Australian fireworks opal “one of the most memorable pattern opals to be offered at auction in the last decade.” What makes it so memorable? Over ten years of doing opal auctions, I’ve had a few pattern opals. Red is the rarest color. It’s the money color. The more red there is in an opal, the more money you’re going to get. With red, it starts at $1,200 to $1,500 a karat, and it can go up to $20,000 a karat. When you see really broad patches with red predominant, that’s a lot rarer. For me, this is one of the best I’ve seen.

How to bid: The exceptional black opal with a fireworks pattern is lot 3147 in The World of Gold, Opals, and Other “Phenomenal” Gems sale taking place May 15, 2018 at Bonhams Los Angeles.

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SOLD! The Canyon Diablo Meteorite Commanded $237,500 at Christie’s

A meteorite from the Canyon Diablo fall, which occurred about 50,000 years ago in what is now the American state of Arizona.

Update: The Canyon Diablo meteorite sold for $237,500.

What you see: A meteorite from the Canyon Diablo fall, which occurred about 50,000 years ago in what is now the American state of Arizona. Christie’s estimates the meteorite at $150,000 to $250,000.

What is a meteorite? “A meteorite has managed to make its way all the way down to the earth,” says James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history. “A meteor is what you see flashing across the sky. It has to be a certain size to avoid the destructive forces of entering the earth’s atmosphere.”

It’s described as a “matchless” meteorite. Why? “It’s unlike and better than any Canyon Diablo meteorite I’ve seen,” he says. “And the holes on it are astonishing. They really add to the sculptural aesthetic collectors look for. For every 200 Canyon Diablo meteorites I see, maybe five are pretty or aesthetic, and probably one has a hole. To have as many holes as this–I can’t think of a meteorite at that size with that many holes. It looks like a Barbara Hepworth or a Henry Moore sculpture. It’s a class above other meteorites from that event.”

Why does the meteorite look this way? “As the meteor falls to earth, the fricative forces in the atmosphere heat it up and will blow it up eventually. The fragments plow into the earth,” he says. “Then they undergo terrestrialization–they weather. If within a parent body there’s a natural weakness in the rock, it will slowly carve away and form a hole. For this particular fragment, tumbling toward the earth created the conditions that allowed it to form holes. “

The meteorite is also described as having an “uncommon smooth metallic surface.” What does that mean? “Most Canyon Diablo meteorites you come across have a jagged surface,” he says. “This looks like the stereotyped ideal of how we want meteorites to look.”

What is the meteorite made of? “Iron and nickel, with several other trace metals,” he says.

The meteorite measures thirteen and a half inches by eight inches by seven and a quarter inches. Is that unusually large? “For something as pretty as that, yes,” he says. “You do get bigger than that. The most famous is the Willamette in New York.”

What does it feel like to hold it in your hands? “It weighs 70 pounds. It’s heavy. If you dropped it on your toes, you could cause real mischief,” he says. “But when you have one of these iron meteorites in your hand, you do have a moment when you step back and think about it. These objects are four and a half billion years old. In our day to day experience, we struggle to understand millions and billions. These objects are one-third as old as time itself. I find it an amazing philosophical puzzle to unravel. The meteorite has a presence that really drives the question home.”

How often do Canyon Diablo meteorites come up at auction? “We have about one every six months at Christie’s, but in ten years, I’ve never seen one that looked like this,” he says. “It’s one of the most extraordinarily beautiful meteorites we’ve had. It has a sculpture-like quality to it. Great art and great objects hold their own next to masterpieces. I’d love to have this with a Franz Kline on the wall and a Barbara Hepworth on the table. It would have a wonderful presence.”

Why else will the meteorite stick in your memory? “I’d go back to its sculpture-like quality. It just screams ‘Barbara Hepworth’ to me,” Hyslop says. “A lot of found objects have that aesthetic. And it looks like the stereotype of a meteorite. It’s perfect.”

How to bid: The Canyon Diablo meteorite is lot 41 in Deep Impact: Martian, Lunar, and Other Rare Meteorites, a Christie’s online sale taking place from February 7 to February 14, 2018.

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SOLD! Mittens from Antarctic Explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard Fetch a Cool $10,435

A pair of lambskin inner mittens with cotton drawstrings, which belonged to British explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

Update: The lambskin mittens belonging to Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard sold for £7,500, or about $10,435–well above their high estimate.

What you see: A pair of lambskin inner mittens with cotton drawstrings, which belonged to British explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Bonhams estimates them at £1,500 to £2,000 ($2,000 to $2,700).

Who was Apsley Cherry-Garrard? He was the second-youngest member of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913) to Antarctica. He and two fellow explorers embarked on a five-week journey to collect Emperor penguin eggs in the dark depths of winter. (It had to be winter, because that’s when the penguins lay their eggs.) Cherry-Garrard chattered his teeth to bits in the punishingly cold weather. He was lucky; unlike Scott or his companions on the penguin egg quest, he lived to tell the tale in the aptly-named 1922 adventure travel classic, The Worst Journey in the World. Cherry-Garrard died in 1959 at the age of 63.

So, Apsley Cherry-Garrard wore at least two sets of mittens in Antarctica, yes? “I’m not a mitten specialist, but as far as I can tell, these are inner mittens,” says Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams. “If you see the pictures, they [the explorers] are usually wearing rabbit or fox fur [on their hands]. I think these are the liners.”

And did these lambskin inner mittens represent the apex of cold weather gear for an Antarctic explorer circa 1910? “They were about as technically advanced as it got,” he says.

The Terra Nova explorers had to choose between mittens or gloves, and they went with mittens. How did that affect the expedition? “They knew mittens were warmer, but it must have been difficult to manipulate the sledges and do scientific experiments,” he says. “It added to the misery of a nightmarish environment. Cherry-Garrard made a very long sledge trek in Antarctic winter, which is our summer. The temperatures fell below – 77 Fahrenheit, or – 60 Celsius.”

How well did these mittens work for the Antarctic explorer? Cherry-Garrard didn’t comment on the performance of his lambskin mittens, but the Bonhams lot notes quote a passage from page 238 of The Worst Journey in the World: “My clothing had frozen hard as I stood… For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in. By now we had realized that we must reverse the usual sledging routine and do everything slowly, wearing when possible the fur mitts which fitted over our woollen mitts, and always stopping whatever we were doing, directly we felt that any part of us was getting frozen, until the circulation was restored.”

Apsley Cherry-Garrard and his two companions bore five Emperor penguin eggs back to the base camp wrapped in their mittens. Do we know if he used these mittens to carry any eggs? “I don’t know whether we can say it was exactly this pair,” he says. “But he did have this pair with him, and he gathered Emperor penguin eggs, and he wrapped them in his mittens to stop them from freezing. He managed to get three back to London.”

How do we know these are Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s mittens from the Terra Nova expedition? “They were originally consigned by members of his family at a previous auction,” he says. “They were acquired by the current owner from there.”

Are these the only Apsley Cherry-Garrard expedition-used artifacts that might have come in direct contact with the penguins? “It’s difficult to say for definite, but [the penguin backstory] gives a bit more color to it,” he says, adding that Bonhams sold a pair of woolen mittens worn by Terra Nova expedition member George Levick in 2014 for £625 ($846).

How desirable are Apsley Cherry-Garrard artifacts among polar collectors? Who, other than Scott, would be more sought-after than him? “Probably any of the people who died in the tent,” says Haley, referring to Captain Lawrence Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Doctor Edward Wilson, and Lieutenant Henry Bowers. “It’s kind of grisly, but if you died on the expedition, you became more mythological than those who didn’t. In 2012, we sold a 1912 letter that was found on Scott’s body for £163,250 ($221,228). You don’t get much better than that.”

One of the mittens has a few “rust marks.” What are rust marks? He says they’re literally marks caused by rust. The mitten must have rested against a rusty bit of metal at some point.

Have you tried the mittens on? How big are they? “I haven’t, actually, because they’re framed,” he says. “They’re quite large, almost 12 inches long. They had to cover the wrists as well.”

What else makes these Antarctic explorer mittens special? “There’s something a little light and amusing about mittens,” he says. “You think of a toddler with them dangling from ribbons on their sleeves. It’s the combination of the sweet idea of the mittens in your head with the grim reality of what Cherry-Garrard had to deal with.”

How to bid: The Cherry-Garrard mittens are lot 136 in the Travel & Exploration sale at Bonhams London on February 7, 2018.

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Purchase a copy of The Worst Journey in the World through the Strand Bookstore in New York City.

In 2012, the Natural History Museum, London, placed one of the Emperor penguin eggs retrieved by Cherry-Garrard on display and created a web page about its treasure.

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A 5.62-carat Green Diamond Could Fetch $3.3 Million At Phillips

A fancy intense green diamond that weighs 5.62 carats.

What you see: A fancy intense green diamond that weighs 5.62 carats. Phillips estimates it at HK $22 million to $26 million, which is about $2.8 million to $3.3 million.

So, just how rare are green diamonds? “We know colored diamonds are quite rare compared to colorless diamonds, and green diamonds are particularly rare,” says Terry Chu, head of jewelry, Asia, senior director, at Phillips. “Blue diamonds are caused by the presence of boron in the diamond crystal structure. Green diamonds are not caused by any impurity. They’re caused by natural radiation–subtle energy that can change the diamond crystal to a green color if it penetrates it over a long span of time–millions of years. Very often, the radiation can only penetrate to the outer layer. Usually only the skin of the diamond crystal is green, and when the diamond cutter polishes it, the green will be gone.”

How rare is it to find a rough green diamond that reduces to a stone of more than five carats? “The finished product is 5.62 carats, so the original rock was maybe seven or eight carats,” she says, adding that in 15 years of experience in gem and jewelry auctions, this is the first green diamond of its kind that she has handled. “But I would not use five carats [as a benchmark]. I would say most green diamonds are below three carats. One other green diamond that was not even five and a half carats–it was 5.03 carats–made over $3 million per carat 18 months ago.” (It sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in May 2016.)

This stone is described as a “fancy intense” green diamond. What does that mean? “Fancy intense is a color grade given by the Gemological Institute of America, the most reputable laboratory in diamond grading,” she says. “When grading a colored diamond, it’s based on saturation, from faint to fancy vivid. Fancy intense is below fancy vivid, which is the most saturated. It’s one grade below fancy vivid.”

Why did the jeweler choose a cushion modified-cut for the green diamond? “It has a more balanced outline,” she says. “No matter which side or which angle you look at it [from], it’s a nice shape. It’s still a brilliant cut style, and brilliant cut styles make it more appealing. With diamonds in general, the round brilliant cut is most popular, and the most everlasting shape and cutting style.”

Why did you put the green diamond in a white gold ring? “When I saw this stone, I wanted to show the pure, real color,” she says. “White gold [allows] the best, most true presentation of the green color of the diamond.”

Is it comfortable to wear on your hand? “A diamond never looks too big on any woman,” she quips. “Don’t worry. One carat of diamond weighs about 0.2 grams. That means five carats equals one gram. It will never be too heavy or too big.”

This looks more like a mint green, or an ice green. Are there green diamonds that have more of an emerald color, or a spring green color? “It’s a pure green color. There’s no secondary color in the hue,” she says. “A yellow-green color is not pure green, and technically, an emerald green is a blue-green. It would not be a pure green. This diamond may look like a mint or an ice green, but those are not standardized technical terms.”

What is the green diamond like in person? “Throughout my career, every time I handle a rare stone, I always have a feeling of how amazing nature is,” Chu says. “When you explain what causes a green diamond, when you think about the whole process, you feel so small. A human being lives maybe 100 years. In a geological span, that is nothing. And the color–no mater how clever or technically advanced human beings are, we cannot duplicate the green color created in nature.”

How to bid: The rare and fancy intense green diamond and diamond ring is lot 607 in the Jewels and Jadeite sale at Phillips Hong Kong on November 27.

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Image is courtesy of Phillips.

Special shout-out to Aja Raden, author and green diamond fan extraordinaire.

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A Matched Set of Bull Mammoth Tusks Could Fetch $250,000

A pair of mammoth tusks from Alaska that date to the Pleistocene era (which spans about 11,700 years ago to 2.6 million years ago).

What you see: A matched set of bull mammoth tusks from Alaska that date to the Pleistocene era (which spans about 11,700 years ago to 2.6 million years ago). Heritage Auctions estimates the pair at $150,000 to $250,000.

These tusks come from a bull, or male, mammoth. Did only bull mammoths grow tusks? And how do we know these are from a bull? “The females have tusks, and the juveniles have them too,” says Craig Kissick, director of nature and science for Heritage Auctions. “The consensus is based on size. This pair of tusks has a pronounced horn, with a big curve. Female tusks are straighter and thinner.”

Were they attached to a skull when they were discovered? “These were probably not found with the bone. They were found together, and you can tell by looking that they’re a matched pair,” he says. “It’s a really nice matched pair, with good color and a nice curve. That’s rare.”

How often do matched pairs of mammoth tusks come to market? “They’re much less common,” Kissick says. “For every tusk you find, a matched pair would be a very small portion of the total take.”

The measurements given in the lot notes for the matched set of bull mammoth tusks–68 inches by 40 inches by 5 inches–are a little hard to understand. What do they describe? The number 68 describes the width of the tusks as they appear in the black display armature, which is visible in the picture. The 40-inch measurement corresponds to height, starting at the bottom of the armature and ending at the top of the tallest tusk. The 5-inch measurement should probably be five feet, because it describes the depth of the display from the front of the armature to the back.

You said that the tusks have “good color.” What does that mean here? “They have smooth whites, tans, and creams. The colors are sublime, not bright and bold like some of the others,” he says. “It’s a nice color palette that’s the result of how the tusks were actually fossilized.”

The lot notes say the matched set of bull mammoth tusks are in excellent condition. What does that mean when we’re talking about fossils? “With fossils, by their very nature, you’re not going to find what you’d call a perfect fossil,” he says, explaining that all fossils need at least some level of “preparation”, a term that covers repairs and restoration. “These tusks appear to have minimal restoration. There’s not a big chunk of the tip that had to be put back on. There are no cracks that had to be filled with putty or paint. These are in really good condition. That’s why they’re important and have a high valuation. They’ve been polished to make them the most presentable [they can be]. No matter how museum-quality it [a great fossil] is, there’s also a decorative quality that makes it amazing to put on display.”

In the foreground of the photo of the mammoth tusks, there’s a fluffy bunny with a carrot in front of it. Why? “It’s for scale,” he says. “Scale doesn’t always translate from your brain to your eyes. We usually put a brass ingot next to minerals, for context. For things that are really big, we’ve used babies, we’ve used kids, we’ve used people, we’ve used dogs.”

But why a fluffy bunny, this time, then? “The tusks are weird with the armature–it’s not easy for an adult or a child [to get in to the space between the tusks in a manner that works for the shot]. It’s easier to plop a bunny down there, and that’s what we did,” he says, explaining that the rabbit is the pet of a junior cataloger at Heritage Auctions. “For further whimsy, we threw the carrot in front of it, because it doesn’t look like a bunny, it looks like a beast. It behaved well enough not to hop off before we took the picture.”

I’d be tempted to tweak the lot notes to add a jokey reference that says the bunny and the carrot don’t come with the tusks. “People can get weird about it [what’s shown in catalog photos versus what’s actually part of the lot]. You’d be surprised,” he says. “We were half thinking of saying, ‘Rabbit not included.'”

How to bid: The matched set of bull mammoth tusks is lot #72194 in Heritage Auctions‘s Nature & Science Signature Auction in Dallas on November 4. As noted above, the rabbit and carrot are not included. Also know that if you live in New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, or California, your state’s laws prevent you from bidding on the tusks. See the lot notes for more.

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Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

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