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The Papers That Led To The Theory of Relativity

November 25, 2021

papers with scientific formulas written on them - Einstein and Besso

A few weeks ago, while at Christie’s, I was fortunate to see a bunch of old, yellowed, and worn papers. They were lying in a glass case with a ton of scribbled mathematical formulas on them when. It turns out they were the early calculations done by Albert Einstein and Michele Besso that led to the theory of relativity. All I could say to myself was, “how do any of these equations mean anything, and who could understand them?”

Both scientists contributed to writing out the formulas. Twenty-six pages are in Einstein’s handwriting, twenty-four in Besso’s, and three collaborated. Besso wisely and carefully preserved the papers until he died in 1955. According to the provenance, they were offered at Christie’s twice before. In 1996 they sold for $398,500 (est. $250-350K) and again in 2002 for $560K.

It appears that the current owner decided this was the right time to put the theory of relativity papers back on the market. Hey, with the prices people are paying for things today, why not. Christie’s, Paris, estimated them at $2.4 -3.5M, which would have been a nice profit. But at least two people thought that the most important scientific documents of the 20th century were worth a lot more. This time around, they sold for $13.17M to Hong Kong’s property tycoon, Li Ka-shing! Guess Christie’s calculations were a little off.