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.|
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.
|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.|
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.
|COLLECTOR: Ross Perot, a big bidder in '93, did not buy at this year's Soviet space auction.|
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review series, was so delayed by World War I that Einstein finally decided the manuscript was obsolete and could not be published as is; furthermore, he had no time to revise it.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.|
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.|
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.
|EINSTEIN SCHOLAR: Robert Schulmann|
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.|
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.