Dec. 1: Must-see Science & Medicine Books from Christie's London

- by Thomas C. McKinney


Signature items of Christie's Science & Medicine Books from the Royal Institution

Technically not a November sale, Christie’s London’s December 1st sale of Science & Medicine Books from the Royal Institution of Great Britain is close enough that we’re including it in our November issue. I’ve covered other sales this month that carry a wide variety of material and will appeal to a broad audience. This sale is different—its offering focused, the grouping tight, and the material premium. Chances are, if science and medicine books are a sweet spot for you, this sale is already in your sights. If by chance it’s not, here’s an advance notice that it should be.

Most sales have a singular gem; one lot that blows everything else out of the water. This auction has several, beginning with what has been called the “most famous anatomical work ever published, … and the milestone in all medical history” in the medical bibliographical reference Heirs of Hippocrates. The item in question is lot 284, Andreas Vesalius’ 1543 publication of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Benefitting from what was at the time, cutting-edge (no pun intended) human dissection, this work with over 200 woodcut illustrations is a seminal work that fundamentally altered the course of anatomical study. Important items usually carry a premium, and important items wrought with images more so. Lot 284 is estimated for £140,000-220,000 ($214,760-337,480).

Standing on equal ground in terms of significance with Vesalius’ work, lot 245 is a first edition of famed astronomer Johannes Kepler’s most important work—Astronomia nova, seu physica coelestis, tradita commentariis de motibus stellae Martis, ex observationibus G.V. Tychonis Brahe, printed in Heidelberg in 1609. Astronomia nova contains the first enunciation of what he is most famous for: the first two laws of planetary motion, being the law of elliptical orbits, and the law of equal area. With only ‘a few copies’ (Kepler’s words) printed, this is a rare and important item. It is estimated £90,000-120,000 ($138,060-184,080).

The next item has been in Institution hands for over 200 years. It’s another high profile scientific item, being William Gilbert’s De magnete, magneticisque corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure; Physiologia nova, plurimis & argumentis, & experimentis demonstrate. Perhaps the first great scientific book printed in England (published in London in 1600), Gilbert was a key figure in the development of electrical science and coined the terms “electricity,” “electric force,” and “electric attraction.” His theories on magnetism were used by Galileo when developing support of Copernican heliocentric cosmology, and his work was cited by Digby, Boyle, Kepler, and Huygens. This was an important scientist, and you can obtain one of his books for an estimated £40,000-60,000 ($61,360-92,040) as lot 233.

You’d be forgiven if this next lot flew under your radar. It is not of medical or scientific origin, and therefore finds itself placed somewhat at odds with its peers in a sale of other medical and scientific material. Lot 234 is a first edition of the Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed Upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787 contains all 85 of the essays that were written in defense of the newly drafted Constitution, as well as the complete text of the Constitution. Equally at home in a library of American history or political science, lot 234 is estimated £40,000-60,000 ($61,360-92,040).

With a concentrated focus, and relatively low number of lots (90), the catalog of Science & Medicine Books from the Royal Institution is must read material for serious collectors of the genres. All lots may be browsed on Christie’s website. The sale takes place on Tuesday, December 1st, at 2:30 London time at Christie's King Street location. If you plan on bidding on the sale, please make sure to register with Christie's beforehand.