Rare, intact first edition of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus for sale

Nicolaus Copernicus zorgde voor een revolutie in de wetenschap met de publicatie van <em>De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium</em> in 1543.”/><figcaption class=

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

Sophia Rare Books

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionized science when he challenged the 1,400-year dominance of Ptolemaic cosmology with the publication of Copernicus (About 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, changing our entire view of the universe and our place in it. Now a rare, pristine first edition is up for sale for $2.5 million.

The hefty price tag not only testifies to the historical importance of the work, but also to the clear provenance and excellent condition of this particular edition, said Christian Westergaard of Sophia Rare Books, who is handling the sale. (He will be exhibiting the edition next month at the upcoming New York International Antiquarian Book Fair.) A similar copy with only a few repairs and a contemporary binding sold at auction in 2008 for $2.2 million. But most first editions of Of revolutions offered for sale have questionable provenance, counterfeit tapes, fax pages, removed stamps, or similar alterations that reduce value.

Noted Copernican scholar Owen Gingerich spent 35 years tracking down and researching every surviving copy of the first two editions of Of revolutions eventually 276 first edition copies (of about 500 originally printed) were found around the world, most of them in institutional collections. There are only a handful of editions of the Gingerich 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 cover a book in this price range, you want a good provenance. You don’t want it suddenly reported as stolen from some library. You want it included in the Gingerich census. In my opinion, this is copy has it all.”

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

Public domain

Copernicus was raised by his uncle, a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. He traveled to Italy in 1496 to obtain degrees in canon law and medicine, but after witnessing his first lunar eclipse in March 1497, he was drawn to astronomy. Copernicus himself eventually became a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. He built an observatory in his chambers in the turret of the city’s walled fortress and diligently studied the sky every night.

In 1514 an anonymous booklet began to circulate among a few astronomers – personal friends of Copernicus, who had written it. The “Little Commentary” (Commentary) designed his new model of the universe with the sun at the center and the earth and other planets revolving 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.

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