Einstein’s handwritten notes on theory of relativity sell for nearly £10m

An extraordinarily rare set of Albert Einstein’s handwritten notes for the theory of relativity were sold in Paris on Tuesday for €11.7 million euros (£9.8million), four times what auction house Christie’s had estimated for the manuscript. 

Across 54 pages, the document contained work for the theory of general relativity, which Einstein published in 1915.

A spokesman for Christie’s said: "This is without a doubt the most valuable Einstein manuscript ever to come to auction." The auction house did not reveal who the buyer was. 

The notes were written in the years 1913 and 1914 in Zurich by Einstein and the Swiss engineer Michele Besso, his lifelong friend.

Einstein did not tend to keep working documents and experts said it was "almost like a miracle" that it had survived.

According to Christie’s it provided a "fascinating plunge into the mind of the 20th Century’s greatest scientist".

A page of the Einstein-Besso manuscript

Credit: ANTONY PAONE
/REUTERS

In it Einstein and Besso together tried to explain an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury with equations Einstein would use to prove the theory of general relativity.

Their goal was to show that Mercury’s perihelion, the point at which it is closest to the sun, alters over time due to the curvature of spacetime.

The pages contain large numbers of calculations written in black ink on wrinkled, lightly yellowed paper.

However, the document also showed that Einstein was not infallible.

Both he and Besso made several errors, and when Einstein realised he abandoned the notes.

Einstein went on to correct the mistakes later, but Besso kept the original document in pristine condition at his home until he died in March 1955.

Einstein rarely kept copies of his works in progress

Credit: Bettmann

It was not clear if Besso took the manuscript, or if Einstein sent it to him to continue working on it.

The document contains 26 pages written by Einstein, 25 by Besso, and three written jointly.

Einstein died the month after Besso, by which time he had won the Nobel Prize and was widely hailed as one of the greatest geniuses in history.

Scientific documents written by Einstein before 1919 are very rare.

Christie’s said that, apart from a manuscript held at the Albert Einstein Archives in Jerusalem, the Einstein-Besso manuscript was the only existing document showing the beginnings of the theory of general relativity.

It was "one of the most important scientific documents of the 20th Century," the auction house said.

The unbound manuscript contains pages that give a 'sense of personality', said Christie's

Credit: Chesnot/Getty Images

Vincent Belloy, a Christie’s manuscript specialist, said: "The manuscript isn’t bound, and there are many different types of loose paper, so you get the impression of a working document that’s full of energy, as if both men would grab the first page they could find to scribble their findings on.

"What’s interesting is the sense of personality that comes across in these pages.

"You get the impression that Einstein was perhaps more confident in his calculations since his sheets are much lighter in terms of textual content and reserved almost exclusively for calculations. Besso, by contrast, often added written notes in the margin."

He added: "Einstein makes errors in this manuscript, and that I think makes it even greater in a way, because we see the persistence, the thought that was in the process of being built, that is being corrected and redirected."

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