Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2013 Issue

A Handwritten Letter Sells for a Record $6 Million-Plus

Francis Crick's “Secret of Life” letter to his son.

On April 10, the highest price ever paid for a letter at auction was achieved at Christie's in New York. If there was any doubt about the growing interest in more ephemeral sorts of works on paper, this should help put it to rest. At over $6 million, or 3 to 6 times the estimate range, there was no shortage of serious interest.

The letter itself is something of a surprise. It was not from one of the great world leaders, a Lincoln, Churchill, or Napoleon. It was not from the most famous of scientists, a Galileo, Kepler, or Newton. It was not even very old, written just sixty years ago. The writer only died in the last decade, his partner and the recipient are still living (and attended the auction). While his name is well-recognized in the scientific community, if you interviewed people on the street and asked who Francis Crick is, most would probably respond with blank stares. What we now know about him is that, along with being a great scientist, he wrote a letter worth $6 million. Obviously, he is more important than the typical man on the street realizes.

For those who have forgotten, Francis Crick, along with his partner, James Watson, discovered the nature of the DNA molecule. To put it more bluntly, they discovered how physical characteristics, and life itself, is transmitted from one individual to another. They were first to understand how the DNA molecule could copy itself, and thereby transmit life to another. Crick and Watson had been working on models of the DNA molecule, trying to break the code. On the last day of February, 1953, they had their voilà moment. They suddenly realized how everything must fit together within the molecule for it all to work.

Crick was not shy in recognizing its importance. He announced to others, only “half-jokingly” as Watson would later write, that they had found “the secret of life.” The two spent March busily constructing models to get it down right, and began to prepare a paper they would submit to Nature magazine on April 2 announcing their discovery. It was during this period that Crick would write his $6 million letter. It was not directed to a fellow scientist or researcher. Instead, it was sent to a 12-year-old boy. That boy was Michael Crick, Francis's son, off at boarding school. Crick regularly explained such things to his son, who was interested in secret codes, so this clearly would have fascinated him. In his letter, Crick explains as clearly as possible what has been discovered. This is the first known written explanation of the discovery, and probably the only first account of such a major scientific discovery to conclude with the line, “Lots of love, Daddy.”

Francis Crick begins his letter modestly with, “Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery. We have built a model for the structure of des-oxy-ribose-nucleic-acid (read it carefully) called D.N.A. You may remember that the genes of the chromosomes - which carry the hereditary factors - are made up of protein and D.N.A. Our structure is very beautiful.” He goes on to say, “...we think we have found the basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life.” He also explains in more detail how its reproduction works, and even provides a crude drawing of their double helix model. Crick promises to show the model to his 12-year-old son when he comes home.

The importance of the discovery and the significance of this letter was well understood by Christie's. Its existence has long been known, it carrying the sobriquet of the “Secret of Life” letter. They slapped an estimate of $1 - $2 million on it. Not even they were prepared for what happened. By the time the bidding stopped, the price had crossed the $6 million mark (including commissions). The final price was $6,059,750. The letter was purchased by an unnamed buyer who placed a bid by telephone.

The auction included only two other items, both relating to Crick, and both easily surpassing estimates. An early 1950s four-page manuscript notebook, estimated at $4,000-$6,000, sold for $21,250. A pencil drawing of Crick by his wife, Odile, estimated at $8,000 - $12,000, went for $17,500. Odile Crick was an artist, though she is best known for her drawing of the double helix used by her husband and Watson.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000
  • ALDE, May 28: KIPLING (RUDYARD). Le Livre de la Jungle. – Le IIe livre de la Jungle. Paris, Sagittaire, Simon Kra, 1924-1925. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: NOAILLES (ANNA DE). Les Climats. Paris, Société du Livre contemporain, 1924. €50,000 to €60,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MILTON (JOHN). Paradis perdu. Quatrième chant. S.l., Les Bibliophiles de l'Automobile-Club de France, 1974. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LEBEDEV (VLADIMIR). Russian Placards - Placard Russe 1917-1922. Saint-Petersbourg, Sterletz, 1923. €1,000 to €1,200.
    ALDE, May 28: MARDRUS (JOSEPH-CHARLES). Histoire charmante de l'adolescente sucre d'amour. Paris, F.-L. Schmied, 1927. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: TABLEAUX DE PARIS. Paris, Émile-Paul Frères, 1927. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LA FONTAINE (JEAN DE). Les Fables illustrées par Paul Jouve. S.l. [Lausanne], Gonin & Cie, 1929. €4,000 to €5,000.
    ALDE, May 28: SARTRE (JEAN-PAUL). Vingt-deux dessins sur le thème du désir. Paris, Fernand Mourlot, 1961. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: [BRAQUE (GEORGES)]. 13 mai 1962. Alès, PAB, 1962. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MIRÓ (JOAN). Je travaille comme un jardinier. Avant-propos d'Yvon Taillandier. Paris, Société intenationale d'art XXe siècle, 1963. €1,000 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MAGNAN (JEAN-MARIE). Taureaux. Paris, Michèle Trinckvel, 1965. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: PICASSO (PABLO). Dans l'atelier de Picasso. 1960. €15,000 to €20,000.

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