The rare and immaculate first edition of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus is on sale

Nicolas Copernic a révolutionné la science avec la publication de <em data-recalc-dims=From Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium in 1543.”/>

Enlarge / Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionized science with the publication of Copernicus in 1543.

Sophie Rare Books

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionized science when he challenged the 1,400-year-old dominance of Ptolemaic cosmology with the publication of Copernicus (On the revolutions of the celestial spheres) in 1543. His manuscript suggested that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system, thus changing our whole view of the Universe and our place in it. Now, a rare, pristine first edition is on sale for $2.5 million.

The high price is a testament not only to the historical significance of the work, but also to the clear provenance and excellent condition of this particular edition, according to Christian Westergaard of Sophia Rare Books, who is handling the sale. (He will exhibit the edition at the upcoming New York International Antiquarian Book Fair next month.) A similar copy with only a few repairs and a contemporary binding sold at auction for $2.2 million in 2008. But most first editions of Revolutions that are offered for sale have questionable provenance, false bindings, facsimile pages, removed stamps or similar alterations which diminish the value.

Renowned Copernican scholar Owen Gingerich spent 35 years researching and examining every surviving copy of the first two editions of Revolutions eventually locating 276 copies of the first edition (out of approximately 500 originally printed) worldwide, most of them in institutional collections. There are only a handful of editions of Gingerich’s census (perhaps 10 to 15) in the hands of private collectors, including this one. “It’s the holy grail for me,” Westergaard told Ars. “If you’re going to manage a book in this price range, you want good provenance. You don’t want it suddenly reported stolen from a library. You want it in the Gingerich census. In my opinion, this copy has it all.”

Enlarge / The “Portrait of Toruń” by Nicolaus Copernicus (anonymous, around 1580).

Public domain

Copernicus was brought up by his uncle, a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. He traveled to Italy in 1496 to earn degrees in canon law and medicine, but after witnessing its first lunar eclipse in March 1497, he found himself drawn to astronomy. Copernic himself became a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. He built an observatory in his chambers in the turret of the city’s walled fortification and diligently studied the heavens every night.

In 1514, an anonymous booklet began to circulate among a few astronomers, personal friends of Copernicus, who were its author. The “little comment” (Comment) presented his new model of the Universe with the Sun at the center and the Earth and other planets orbiting around it. He correctly determined the order of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter and concluded that the changing positions of the stars are caused by the rotation of the Earth itself. Finally, he explained that the apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by observing them from a moving Earth.

Leave a Comment