June 12: Landmark works 'Summa de Arithmetica' and DNA's double-helix discovery at Christie's New York
- by Thomas C. McKinney
Highlights from Christie's June 12 sales in New York
Normally, a sale featuring multiple six figure estimates, including a signed prepublication of the DNA double-helix discovery, a letter by George Washington addressing the Whiskey Rebellion, and another written by Lincoln during the Civil War, would demand all the attention of a preview like this. However, these and other lots are part of Christie’s second sale in New York on June 12. Before them is a single lot sale: Summa de Arithmetica: The Birth of Modern Business. This one item is the first appearance at auction in over fifty years of a first edition, originally bound Somma di arithmetica, geometria, proporzioni e proporzionalità by Luca Pacioli, a work renowned for being the first in many important respects. These include:
- The first published description of double-entry bookkeeping.
- The first print appearance of the plus and minus symbols in math.
- The first printed work to illustrate the finger symbolism of numbers.
- The first print appearance of the name Fibonacci and many of his ideas.
- The first appearance of the “rule of 72” — a simple method for calculating compound interest still taught today.
- The first popular mathematics book.
Christie’s has provided a detailed introduction, background, and history on Pacioli and his work, including the author’s relationship and influence on Leonardo da Vinci and the book’s impact on capitalism, business, and mathematics. You can find the writeup here. Math and business history evidently does not come cheaply—the Somma is estimated $1,000,000 to $1,500,000.
The second sale of the day is nothing to scoff at either! Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts Including Americana features 232 lots of high-quality material ranging from $300 on the low end of estimates all the way to $250,000.
I will not pretend to be versed in complex science, but the work of Francis Crick and James Watson is known worldwide, though maybe their names are slightly less familiar than the subject matter: these are the men who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Lot 25 is the only known prepublication copy of their 1953 paper “Molecular structure of nucleic acids: A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid.” It is signed by both and features two annotations. $180,000 to $250,000 are the estimates. The following lot, number 26, is another signed, galley proof paper, this time following up on the implications of their original groundbreaker. This one might come at a slight discount: $120,000 to $180,000.
As a US history buff, I’m turning my focus now to two of the most influential men in that sphere: Washington and Lincoln. Important and interesting letters from both are coming up for bidding. Washington’s letter from October 8, 1794 expresses his concerns about the Whiskey Rebellion—what Christie’s calls “the first great test of federal authority.” For anyone who has seen Hamilton or simply knows the early history of the US, the Whiskey Rebellion was a response to Hamilton’s whiskey tax—the first federal tax on a domestic product. This letter immediately precedes the federal army’s march and show of force (without a shot fired) in western Pennsylvania and the end of the rebellion. Washington’s letter is lot 126 in the sale and is estimated $100,000 to $150,000. As for Lincoln, his letter of December 21, 1861, is addressed to Major General John Charles Frémont, a man whom Lincoln had dismissed from command in November for his failure to support exposed Union forces under Nathaniel Lyon at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. The letter is both an admonishment and critique of Frémont, though Lincoln treads carefully because of his target’s political strength. As lot 144, the letter is estimated $80,000 to $120,000.
The online catalog for Christie’s New York’s sale of Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts Including Americana can be browsed here. Summa de Arithmetica leads off the bidding at 2pm eastern time, followed immediately by the 232 lots of Fine Printed Books.