Albert Einstein typically threw out drafts of his paradigm-shifting work.
With fees, the total price adds up to more than $13 million, said Sofia Hame, a spokeswoman for Christie’s. Christie’s held the sale for the Aguttes auction house.
The 54-page document, handwritten jointly by Einstein and Swiss engineer Michele Besso — his lifelong friend and only acknowledged collaborator — documents preparatory work for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, an idea that changed human understandings of the universe and has been described as the most beautiful theory in physics.
“As one of only two surviving manuscripts documenting the genesis of general relativity, it provides a remarkable insight into Einstein’s work and a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the greatest scientist of the 20th century,” Christie’s said on its website.
Valued at between $2.4 million and $3.5 million before the auction, it was the most valuable Einstein manuscript to be sold. Christie’s described it in a news release as “one of the most important scientific autographs ever to come to auction.”
Most of the document was composed in June 1913, when Einstein was living in Zurich. It consists of calculations etched largely in ink on yellowed leaves of foolscap and squared paper, with 26 pages in Einstein’s handwriting, 25 pages in Besso’s and three containing entries from both scientists.
The famous German scientist was working with Besso to test his theory of the relationship between gravitation and the space-time curvature by examining the anomaly of the planet Mercury’s orbit.
Replete with errors, crossed-out equations and corrected calculations, the pages slated for the auction block Tuesday showcase what Christie’s called a “crucial stage” in the relativity theory’s development.
The scientists’ calculations in the manuscript were incorrect, and Einstein and Besso paused their work in June 1913 when Besso had to return home to present-day Italy. Besso tried to continue on his own in early 1914 but ultimately gave up on the project.
Einstein later reworked the calculations and published the theory of general relativity under only his name in November 1915. The contribution upended understandings of gravity, space and time, opening up explorations of gravitational time dilation, light deflection and gravitational waves. It was one of the breakthroughs that helped make Einstein’s name synonymous with genius in popular culture.
Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for 1921. He died in 1955 at age 76.
Diana Kormos Buchwald, a historian of science and director of the Einstein Papers Project, described the manuscript as a “foundational document” that sheds light on the painstaking — and collaborative — process that led to one of the field’s most significant discoveries.
It is thanks to Besso that the document survived, Christie’s said, because Einstein was known for discarding his working drafts. Besso held on to the pages throughout his life and passed them down to his son, Vero, who later gave them to Pierre Speziali, the editor of correspondence between Michele Besso and Einstein. Speziali shared a photocopy with the Einstein Papers Project, which published it in a volume of Einstein’s collected papers.
It is thanks to Besso that the document survived, Christie’s said, because Einstein was known for discarding his working drafts. Besso held onto the pages throughout his life and passed them down to his son, Vero, who later gave them to Pierre Speziali, the editor of correspondence between Michele Besso and Einstein. Speziali shared a photocopy with the Einstein Papers Project, which published it in a volume of Einstein’s collected papers.
The original was eventually sold at auction in 1996 before being acquired along with other Einstein papers in 2002 for roughly half a million dollars by the French company Aristophil.
Aristophil sold shares in a large collection of rare manuscripts appraised at high prices — including the Einstein-Besso document — to some 18,000 people. In 2015, French authorities arrested Gérard Lhéritier, the company’s founder, accusing him of defrauding investors and essentially running a literary Ponzi scheme.
Tuesday’s sale was part of a series of judicial auctions to find new homes for Lhéritier’s collection.
Kormos Buchwald said Einstein was aware of the growing value of his papers during his lifetime and “would have liked a manuscript sale to go to a good cause.”
This report has been updated.
A previous version of this article misstated the year that Einstein and Besso paused their work on the manuscript. They paused in June 1913, not 2013. The article has been corrected.