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.


No comments:

Post a Comment