At Sotheby's Auction, Space Sells, Einstein Doesn't

March 16 was not the best of days for Sotheby's, the venerable New York auction house. Albert Einstein failed to sell, and Ross Perot failed to buy. HIGH-FLYING FIDO: This 1959 prototype canine high-altitude, partial-pressure suit for use in Soviet suborbital biological research flights sold for $25,300. A 72-page Einstein manuscript on special relativity, which first sold for $1.2 million in 1987, did not attract any bidders above the confidential minimum price. Earlier the same day, Sotheb

By | April 15, 1996

March 16 was not the best of days for Sotheby's, the venerable New York auction house. Albert Einstein failed to sell, and Ross Perot failed to buy.

HIGH-FLYING FIDO: This 1959 prototype canine high-altitude, partial-pressure suit for use in Soviet suborbital biological research flights sold for $25,300.
A 72-page Einstein manuscript on special relativity, which first sold for $1.2 million in 1987, did not attract any bidders above the confidential minimum price. Earlier the same day, Sotheby's held its second auction of Russian space artifacts. The first, in December 1993, had been wildly successful, with bidders buying 95 percent of all lots offered, often at prices well over pre-sale estimates.

The big buyer at the 1993 auction-not widely known-was Ross Perot, Texas billionaire and 1992 presidential candidate. He bought eight of the 10 highest-priced lots, including a Soyuz space capsule for $1,652,500; three space suits for a total of $600,000; and, for $189,500, a mannequin, "Ivan Ivanovich," that preceded Yuri Gagarin into space. Bidding proceeded more modestly at last month's space auction, with prices coming down to Earth for space suits and other items and about one-quarter of the lots going unsold. Perot says he was interested in four items but did not buy any. "The prices got too steep," he tells The Scientist.

space suit
DOWN-TO-EARTH PRICE: This Soviet space suit, estimated to go for $60,000 to $100,000, was sold for only $34,500 at last month's auction.
The price expected by the anonymous owner of the Einstein manuscript was also too steep, apparently. With television cameras lining a standing-room-only auction hall, David Redden, head of Sotheby's books and manuscripts division worldwide, opened the bidding at $2 million. For a minute he called out successive bids in increments of $100,000 until he reached $3.3 million, where he stopped. After calling for more interest, Redden announced a pass-the manuscript did not sell because the consignor was not willing to part with the manuscript for $3.3 million.

It is not even clear, in fact, that anyone at all bid on the manuscript, because under the conditions of sale Sotheby's is allowed to bid on behalf of the consignor up to the level of the reserve, the secret minimum price that the consignor will accept. In this case the reserve was greater than $3.3 million but less than or equal to $4 million, the low estimate Sotheby's placed on the manuscript.

Four days after the auction, however, the manuscript sold without fanfare to the New York-based Jacob E. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, funded by three brothers including Edmond Safra, the founder of the Republic National Bank of New York. The foundation, which did not disclose the sale price, then donated the manuscript to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which also houses the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Shrine of the Book.

Ross Perot
COLLECTOR: Ross Perot, a big bidder in '93, did not buy at this year's Soviet space auction.
Through a public relations official, the Safras declined to make any comment beyond a one-page announcement of the purchase and donation.

Scholars are pleased that the manuscript will now be available to the public, according to Robert Schulmann, coeditor of the Einstein papers at Boston University. Written in 1912 in German on unlined paper, the 72 pages have extensive deletions, corrections, and additions. Publication of the paper, commissioned for a multiauthor review series, was so delayed by World War I that Einstein finally decided the manuscript was obsolete and could not be published as is; furthermore, he had no time to revise it. It remained in the family of the intended publisher until 1987, when the unnamed person who offered it for sale last month bought it at a Sotheby's auction for $1.2 million, a record for a scientific manuscript.

GOING ONCE...: The second Russian space auction saw lower prices than the first, held three years ago.
Redden characterizes the 1912 paper as the most important scientific manuscript of the 20th century in private hands. Although it is indeed the earliest and longest-surviving manuscript on special relativity, Schulmann believes the Sotheby's claim is partly hype.

The manuscript, he notes, was for a review paper, with "no sense of immediacy of working through problems." Furthermore, several newspaper accounts of the manuscript suggest Einstein made a great leap in understanding when he wrote "EL = mc²," and then crossed out the L as an unnecessary constant. Bunk, says Schulmann, who points out that L stands for kinetic energy and that Einstein simply replaced it with a more modern formulation, E, standing for total energy; the two were never meant to be multiplied.

RARE COMMODITY: Of Albert Einstein's manuscripts written before 1920, fewer than 10 exist.
No known manuscripts survive of the key papers Einstein wrote in 1905, including the first one on special relativity. Until Helen Dukas became his secretary in the 1920s, Einstein routinely threw away drafts of published papers. Thus, fewer than 10 pre-1920 Einstein manuscripts exist; four are in private hands. As he desired, most of Einstein's papers went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1983, upon Helen Dukas's death.

Schulmann is hopeful that a potentially more important Einstein manuscript-51 pages of calculations on the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, written with Michele Besso, a close friend of Einstein's-will come up for auction soon. Owned by the Besso Family Trust in Geneva, the manuscript is interesting, Schulmann says, because Einstein and Besso came up with an answer wrong by an order of magnitude.

Robert Schulmann
EINSTEIN SCHOLAR: Robert Schulmann
Before the Einstein auction, Redden and another auctioneer brought 408 lots of Russian space memorabilia to bid. Of those 301 sold for a total of $993,106. Top sellers were a spy satellite for $112,500, a space suit for $34,500, and the English-language records file of Yuri Gagarin's inaugural space flight on April 12, 1961. Overall, prices were more in line with the true market, according to I. Michael Orenstein of Superior Stamp and Coin in Beverly Hills, Calif., which holds biannual space memorabilia auctions. "The first sale got astronomical prices, head and shoulders above prices previously seen in the market," he notes.

Perot's purchases at the first auction may never have been reported before, according to his staff, although 23 of the Russian items have been on exhibit at the three United States military academies since April 1995. Speaking of his collection in a telephone interview with The Scientist, Perot says: "The day I bought it, I wrote the Russian government and told them it's part of their heritage and I would work with them to return it to them." Meanwhile, he has made a long-term loan of much of the material to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C., which plans to open an exhibition in 1997 on the space race.

LOG BOOK: This relic of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission sold for $8,625.
That any significant hardware and manuscripts from the Russian space program are for sale in the U.S. is remarkable in itself, a result of "interesting and extraordinary circumstances," according to Redden. First, engineers, cosmonauts, and other individuals in Russia own important material, which would not typically be in private hands in the U.S. For example, a group of past and present Russian military officers consigned the top seller in last month's auction, a spy satellite flown in 1988 that was bought by an American private collector for $112,500. Zvezda, a manufacturer of space suits and related hardware, consigned about 50 lots.

The second extraordinary circumstance, what Redden calls the "economic imperative," is the chaotic state of the Russian economy and the need for cash on the part of many Russians. Some people familiar with the Russian space program say that items are even being removed from Russian space museums for sale in the West.

Perot's desire to return much of what he has bought to Russia must await the advent of a Russian museum on the scope of NASM. Although there are hundreds of small, often private, space museums in Russia, there has long been talk of a major museum to attract tourists, notes Kathleen Lewis, curator of Russian and Soviet space history at NASM.

Lewis expresses great interest in the "remarkable collection of prototype space suits" at the Sotheby's auction. Although they would make a wonderful addition to her collection, they will go there only if their owners donate them to NASM. Just as the Russians cannot afford at present to build a major space museum, the Smithsonian's air and space museum could not afford to bid on any items at the March auction.

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