Isaac Newton’s Lost Library

Often at work people approach me with the question of what to do about a loved one’s library after he or she has passed away. Cataloguing books is a lot of work, but it should be done before selling or tossing anything away. Otherwise, the collection could end up like Isaac Newton’s library.

 

 

When Isaac Newton died in 1727, his library of some 1900 volumes was put on sale (valued at £270 then, or about $55,000 today) and purchased by a man named Huggins (for £300/$61,000). Huggins affixed his bookplate, an ownership label, to each of the books. When Huggins died, James Musgrave, a family member by marriage, purchased the library (for £400/$81,000), and pasted his own bookplates over those of Huggins. Note: two bookplates, but no record within the books of Newton’s ownership.

 

Musgrave’s library was catalogued in 1760, and as late as 1775 it was known that he owned Newton’s books. But in 1778 Musgrave died, apparently without documenting this information for his children. (The catalogue, after all, could not make mention of Newton’s bookplates, since there weren’t any.) As a result, the knowledge that these books came from Newton’s library became lost for generations.

 

Fast forward to 1920. The Musgrave family decided to sell one of their residences. A large portion of their library was included in this sale, without any notation of its importance. Newton’s books were sold at the auction in bundles—the way auctions sell less desirable items—at about £100 in total ($3900 today). For a time it was assumed that the rest of the books had been pulped, meaning they had been chopped, chemically broken down, and fed into making recycled paper. Pulped! Isaac Newton’s own books!

 

Then Richard De Villamil discovered over 800 books owned by Newton at one of the Musgrave’s residences, which were then auctioned off with full knowledge of their distinguished owner. Villamil is my nerdy hero of the day; you should read his own account of this story, which has so many twists and turns it could be a mystery novel.

 

What happened to those books that were sold in bulk at the 1920 auction? Well, these are the kinds of books you could possibly find in an old attic somewhere. It’s always been believed that many of these books made their way to the United States, and plenty are unaccounted for.

 

Newton liked to dog-ear his books instead of writing in them. He would often dog-ear them so that the fold lined up with the sentence he wanted to remember. So if you have a book from a 1920 English auction with lots of dog-ears, you just might have a piece of Newton’s original library…but probably not.

 

Putting aside even the monetary value, I would love to own a book from Newton’s library. From whose library would you want a book?

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    I think I would like a volume from the Mather family library.

  2. Rod Rodriguez says:

    The second set of Ten Commandments made of stone! I know a Flintstones era book binding and I would need really sturdy shelves, but it would still be nice. Something from the Royal Library of Alexandria too, but I would definitely need to install fire suppression for that one. If not those a well marked book from Lincoln’s early years, but those were probably borrowed from someone else’s library!

  3. cardinalrich says:

    Obviously Rod hasn’t seen Raiders of the Lost Ark – I wouldn’t want the Commandments anywhere near me. I’d settle for something from Jefferson’s library. I guess I will have to swing by the Library of Congress and just pretend it’s mine.

    1. At the gallery we actually have a book from Jefferson’s library–the library he formed after selling his previous one to form the renewed Library of Congress. Take a look on the Bauman Rare Books website.

  4. sam says:

    Hello, just wanted to say that I admire your intelligence! You should do a Reddit AMA. I think it would be a very interesting read!

  5. Blake says:

    Hemingway, Whitman and Rand

    1. At the New York gallery we have Hemingway’s freshman high school textbook Old English Ballads. It’s pretty beat up but very cool.

  6. erikhaun says:

    I may be somewhat cheating in my response as it’s not one particular person’s library, but I’d love a scroll from the Library of Alexandria. Maybe an epic poem or perhaps a play never seen before or thought lost forever. Not to be too picky, but perhaps something of Plato’s or Aristotle’s. Of course, I’d need to have someone to translate it for me. Help, Rebecca! 🙂

    1. Good call. But do you know how many classics scholars I’d have to fight with for the privilege of translating that?!

  7. shroomduke says:

    Very interesting story, I hate to think of these old books being pulped… yikes!

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