Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pawn Stars, Rare Books, Sir Isaac Newton, History of Science, Geology, Agricola

Monday evenings, I enjoy watching Pawn Stars, on the History Channel. The proprietors of the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas are true characters - the "Old Man" is perhaps the most interesting curmudgeon in entertainment today.

Last night, I was amazed and amused when the Old Man bought a rare and collectible book. But first, he called in an expert to appraise the beautiful, obviously old, leather bound Latin text with marginalia. I was a bit shocked when the appraiser verified the seller's claim that it was a book belonging to the library of Sir Isaac Newton.  The Old Man was able to purchase the book for $7,000 after the appraiser suggested it would be valued at $20,000. Well-negotiated, but still a large outlay for the curmudgeon.  I knew I would have to do some research on this transaction to evaluate the Old Man's book-sense and the expert's judgement.

The Old Man bought a book published in 1546, authored by Georgius Agricola, published in Latin with a book plate and markings documenting it was from Sir Isaac Newton's personal library.  Georgius (Bauer) Agricola (1490-1555) was a physician who practiced medicine in the silver mining district near the town of Joachimsthal on the border today of Germany and the Czech Republic.  His practice enabled him to pursue his real talent, studying geology, and he is now considered the founder of the modern science of physical geology.
Agricola published two books in 1546, De Natura Fossilium (On the Nature of Fossils) and De Ortu et Causis Subterraneorum, the first book on physical geology and the book featured on Pawn Stars.  This is a notable and collectible book because it is the first comprehensive and scientific (in the modern sense) book on physical geology. Agricola considers wind and water as powerful geological forces and argues that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are caused by the heating of subterranean gases and vapors by the earth's internal heat.  

Image from the Christie's auction record link below
The complete citation information is De ortu & causis subterraneorum Lib. V - De natura eorum quae effluunt ex terra Lib. IIII - De natura fossilium Lib. X - De veteribus & novis metallis Lib. II - Bermannus, sive De re metallica Dialogus - Interpretatio Germanica vocum rei metallicae. Basel: Hieronymus Froben and Nicolaus Episcopius, September 1546.  A copy of this work was sold at auction by Christie's in 2008 for $7500 , less than their estimated range of $8000-$12,000, and less than the $20,000 value mentioned on the show.

Agricola's most famous book was De re Metallica Libri XII, Quibus Officia, Instrumenta, Machinae, Ac Omnia Denique Ad Metaalicam Spectantia, Basileae, 1556, folio, 6 11., 502 pp. 37 aa, index.  Published posthumously, this book is considered a masterpiece of early science and technology and was illustrated with numerous wood-cut illustrations of men at work and mining machinery in action, pumping, ventilating, smelting, assaying, transporting and moving the mining machinery of the day. (So noted in the publication, Heralds of Science:  as represented by two hundred epochal books and pamphlets selected from the Burndy Library, With notes by Bern Dibner, Burndy Library, Norwalk, Ct, 1955). A copy of this masterpiece is currently for sale listed at $58,800.00. 

Determining a value for the Pawn Star's De Ortu et Causis Subterraneorum begins with the auction price realized in 2008 of $7500, however that copy had no association with Sir Isaac Newton's library.  I have yet to discover any record of a previous sale of Newton's copy of Agricola and a mystery remains concerning the provenance of the copy that the seller had in Las Vegas - all he could say is that it was in his father's collection stored in bubble-wrap.  The expert on the show determined it was from Sir Isaac Newton's library evidenced by the bookplate and shelving location marks. 

After some research, I am beginning to doubt that assessment.  It is unclear to me that Newton used bookplates.  The books from Newton's library were sold at auction after his death and the new owner pasted on his own bookplates.   A future auction of the library was held and again, the new owner pasted on his own bookplate, often on top of the previous plate.  There is a complete bibliogrpahy of Newton's library, The Library of Isaac Newton by John Harrison, Cambridge University Press, 1978 and until I acquire a copy to study, I will remain suspect of the appraisal featured on Pawn Stars.  The marginal notes in the book were appraised by a separate forensic handwriting expert who determined the writing was to small to be in Newton's own hand, although I would suggest further analysis would be in order. 

How will the Newton association impact the value of this book? Or the Pawn Stars association?   There are two copies currently listed for sale with a price of $30,000 (here and here).  This suggests that the appraised value of $20,000 may be low and certainly if the association with Newton's library is confirmed, the value should pass the $30,000 mark.  The Old Man did well acquiring a copy for $7000, but how well, is yet to be determined!

I enjoyed this reason to investigate the history of Sir Isaac Newton's personal library. He acquired a "working" scholarly library, carefully studying almost every book in his collection and he did indeed, make marginal notes on many pages.  The history of Isaac Newton's personal library is interesting and copies do change hands periodically.  I will do more research and post a follow-up in a couple of weeks.  This is a fascinating puzzle, and to solve it, I just need to gain access to a bit more of Newtonian history not available immediately.



  1. I'd love to get my hand on that book. I would suggest that Pawn Stars reexamine the handwriting. I've seen Newton's handwriting and his mathematical notation was tiny. As a Columbia University alumnus I had access to the rare books archive. Columbia has Newton's commentary on Johann de Monte-Snyder's Tractatus de medicina universali. It's interesting because the manuscript has Newton's alchemical notations. Here is the link:


  2. I agree on the handwriting. I viewed several examples yesterday and Newton did employ tiny script in the margins. I'll check out the Columbia holding.

    Thanks for the pointer.

  3. I third on the notes being in Isaac's handwriting and believe it fully to be his.

  4. De Ortu et Causis Subterraneorum is listed in the Catalog of Newton's library as book 19. The note is "basilae, 1546, Not H; M/J9-17; Thame/969; ?"

    The book is can be searched on Amazon and the reference is on page 84.

  5. I agree the handwriting is possibly Newton's. I am a handwriting expert and have testified as an expert witness at countless trials. This being the case, ANYONE who does a 5 minute search would be able to refute the grounds used by Pawnstars' expert to formulate his opinion.
    (Newton did not write in small script? )http://beeyondsight.xanga.com/600050830/item/

    It is a TV show, however, and I think it likely that part of the opinion of the expert was edited for time or to leave intrigue.

    I would need to see the book in person to make a professional opinion, but Pawnstars should seek second and third opinions for sure.

  6. when the price is thousands and can be millions of course you have it checked several timesand just when they tell you its not. have it checked just 1 more time.

  7. You folks are wise to question the assessment of Pawn Stars' "authenticator" Drew Max. I don't know him. I have never dealt with him. But I am very dubious.

    His certifications are the subject of ridicule by a number of informed autograph collectors and dealers.


    According to Max's own bio


    he is not certified by either of the two accredited boards for forensic document examiners that are sanctioned by the American Academy of
    Forensic Sciences (through the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board).


    In what should be an important credential on his CV (above) he has a glaring error, referring to himself as a "Diplomat" instead of "Diplomate".

    I have seen his Certificates of Authenticity attached to some laughable items at a major Las Vegas emporium.

    As a general matter, there is more money to be made by authenticating voluminous amounts of material.

    Moreover, most reality shows are anything but "real". Producers tend to get the results they desire for particular episodes. If a person can't deliver the results,
    he is replaced.

    1. mayu_apu@yahoo.comApril 21, 2013 at 8:29 PM

      I have often wondered about the "EXPERTS" they call in to verify objects. Of course I am in total agreement about "The reality producers" getting the results they want for the particular episode. I also wonder after so many, many years that the Pawn Star staff, (The Old man & Rick in particular) are not EXPERTS on their own & why do they always have to call in someone else to do authentication for them. I recently watched an episode where Rick got handed his butt over an child's Indian vest & even I knew it was a fake due to the fact that the beading was off, WAY OFF.
      It would seem to me that after so many years of this "Pawn Shop" dealing that they would have learned something.

  8. Great read, thanks for all the info....this is why I love the internet within minutes I can get research info that would have taken me weeks if not months and I did not have to spend a nickle on gasoline , thanks to thebooksinmylife.com

  9. I've watched this particular episode as well, and I find that for the amount of money the "Old Man" has paid, he struck gold.

    A book from Isaac Newton's library is really expensive, and this item (apart from the straitjacket of Houdini's, in another episode of Pawn Stars) caught my attention for the longest time.

  10. With pleasure I would like to read this book. Where can I buy it?

  11. I seem to remember watching a documentary about Newton's life one time & they mentioned that at one time he had written very very small when he was doing his calculations. They made a point of pointing that fact out, so I would have to agree that they should really get a second & more knowledgeable opinion of the handwriting in that book. Just to base that it wasn't real purely on size doesn't sound right to me, because sometimes I'll write to scale of the margins or available space & who's to say Newton didn't do the same in this instance?

  12. Awesome thinking of writing a book about a pawn shop. Probably I'll think of one for the old pawn shop roane county in our place. And where can I find Agricola's book? Mining was a hit for me when sandbox was first introduced to my 3-year old mind and that was the last encounter with it.

  13. I didn't know before that pawnshops exist on Sir Newtons era. The jewelers on long island must be proud knowing that their business has been regarded knowing the Sir Newton even wrote something about it.

  14. mayu_apu@yahoo.comApril 21, 2013 at 7:41 PM

    Is this book still available? Just wondering. It if were my book you would have to pry it from my cold dead hands & you would still have trouble doing that!!!

  15. I was here: 67a342z2#-0983647

  16. The legal implications of incorrect appraisal
    of a historically significant scientific work
    remain for us to ponder. If in fact the margin notes are Newton's, as we suspect, and the "deal" was struck w/ reliance that they weren't, then
    the seller has recourse because of misrepresentation
    as to a material fact.

    1. I love all the armchair experts. Never ceases to amaze me how many people think they are legal experts. Heck our own supreme court screws up a decision from time to time.

      First off it's a pawn shop for crying out loud. If you are taking something to a pawn shop you aren't looking to get top dollar you are looking to get quick cash. The pawn shop brings in people they deem reliable for their own benefit not for the benefit of the seller so the seller has no expectation to gain anything from the person brought in. and lastly, the opinion on the margin notes were done after the sell was already made. The seller had no part in that determination because it already belonged to the pawn shop.

  17. If the Handwriting is his and everything was legit please can someone tell me what this book would get in an auction. I am really curious that this would be a significant almost priceless , I am curious to see what some of his equations are and his personal notations were

  18. That repentance sometimes happens whilst someone life or maybe immediately after he has died in addition to were located unitarian once more within the centuries (as a number of "Christian universalists" claim) or maybe a number of long term point out.

  19. A quick search in Google will show that a copy of this book was available on the Internet retail for over $14,000 even without the Newton provenance :
    What I find amazing is that the seller didnt do a minimal amount of research and after the $7000 offer taken it to an international auction house who would have obtained a more
    academic expert's opinion on the marginalia. Certainly a verdict base on size is inadequate.