Re: Archimedes Palimpsest by Fred Rickey

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Subject:      Re: Archimedes Palimpsest
Author:       Fred Rickey <>
Date:         Fri, 30 Oct 1998 08:18:12 -0500

Dear Colleagues,

The third portion of the Haskell F. Norman Library sale at Christie's
began yesterday promptly at 9:00 EST. The first item on the agenda was to
read a press announcement entitled "The Archimedes Palimpsest." Here is
the full text:

"Christie's is pleased to inform its clients that the Federal Court in New
York last night denied a motion by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of
Jerusalem to enjoin this afternoon's sale of the Archimedes Palimpsest.
The judge ruled that under the applicable law our consignor has clear
title to sell the manuscript, and the sale will take place as scheduled."

When this announcement was made there was little reaction in the sales
gallery. Then the sale of the Norman Library began. The auctioneer began:
We have lot number 987 (or some such number) and I have an opening bid of
$800. A few bids were made from the floor, bidding was closed, and lot 988
was called. This went on in rapid succession. The lots were not identified
except by lot number, so if you did not have a catalogue on your lap, it
wasn't very interesting.

After watching for awhile, I left to meet my friend and colleague from the
Institute for the History of Mathematics and Its Use in Teaching (IHMT),
Shirley Gray who had come form California for the sale. She had previously
arranged to meet with Hope Mayo, a consultant for manuscripts at
Christie's, and see the manuscript. So I was fortunate enough to get
another look at the manuscript.

We looked carefully at the manuscript, especially at the Method and at the
diagrams. Hope Mayo pointed out pages where the diagrams were most
visible. She said that the 55 diagrams are clearly visible under
ultraviolet light.  The easiest to see is an Archimedian spiral on folio
89r, which is pictured in the catalogue. There was one page where the
diagram was in mid page on the original and thus ended up near the gutter
of the palimpsest. One portion of a circle was clearly visible, but one
had to turn to the pages to see the other half of the bifolio and see the
other portion of the circle. The last words of Archimedes --- in the
version of Livy --- came to mind: Nolo tubare circulos meos! (Don't touch
my circles).

We also looked at the illustrations of the four evangelists that are now
in the volume. Each of them is on a leaf of the Method (sadly) and each of
them is now detached from the volume (they are in the volume at the
appropriate place). While I am no art historian, I could tell that they
were poorly done. That Heiberg translated text from each of these pages
and makes no comment about illustrations shows that these illustrations
were added after he saw the manuscript. The most reasonable reason why
this would be done is to enhance the sale value of the manuscript, so this
must have been done before the manuscript was acquired by a French family
in the 1920s.

Some pages of the manuscript were digitally scanned by Octavo Corporation
in Palo Alto California, and digital scans under ultraviolet light were
made at Rochester Institute of Technology. Hope Mayo accompanied the
manuscript on these trips and she said that only a few pages were
photographed for the catalogue. But it was very clear that these new
technologies revealed many new details that Heiberg was unable to see with
naked eye and magnifying glass. We scholars would, of course, have
preferred that the whole manuscript had been scanned, but it was explained
that Christi's did not own the manuscript and to photograph the whole
would reduce its value. While looking at the manuscript, the guard
standing outside the room was a reminder of the value of the manuscript.

It was a thrill to get another look at the manuscript and to talk to Hope
Mayo in detail about it. She has worked with the manuscript for several
months now and commented that she was sorry to see it go. Like her, I hope
I get to see it again some day.

Well 2:00 PM EST was blast off time for John Glenn and sale time for
Archimedes. We arrived in the auction room about 20 minutes before it
began. TV cameras were being set up and the room was abuz. I recognized
people from the sale in the morning, but there was no one that I knew. But
before long I met Chris Rorres of Drexel who has a nice web site on
The only other people from the mathematics community that I recognized
were several editors from Springer Verlag.

The auction began promptly at 2 with a rereading of the press anouncement.
It was announced as Lot 1, The Archimedes Palimpsest, and a photo of one
leaf was shown on a screen. The auctioneer announced that he had a bid of
480,000. Immediately the bid was 500,000 and then it went up by increments
of $50,000 to one million. The Christie's staff was on the phones with
half a dozen potential buyers, but I only saw one of them bid. Three or
four people in the room placed bids. I did not know any of them and it was
even hard to tell who was bidding. At $1m the bids went up in increments
of $100,000 until the bidding reached $1,800,000. There was some pause,
then a (non-standard) bid of $1,850,000. Then 1.9m. Again the auctioneer
took his time, looking carefully for more bids, giving the bidders time to
think. Then a bid of $2,000,000 and another pause. One bidder said he was
thinking, but the auctioneer said "we have to more on, there are more
books to sell." Another pause, another call for bids. Then, with a crack
of the hammer and the announcement "sold to the gentelman on my right" it
was over. Ellapsed time: less than five minutes.

There was considerable bussle in the room. The person behind us identified
the buyer as Simon Finch, a London dealer, who had bought many books
during the morning portion of the sale.

I did not leave the room immediately, so missed an imprompt news
conference by Felix de Marez Oyens, the Head of the Manuscript Department
at Chrisite's. He revealed that Simon Finch had purchased the book for a
private American, who was not Bill Gates.

It is the policy of Christie's not to reveal the identity of either the
seller or the buyer. Consequently, we will have to plug into the grapevine
and watch the news to find out who the new owner is. Whoever it is, I
sincerely hope that the work will again be available for study by
scholars, for I have been convinced that there is a good deal yet to be
learned about the details of the work of Archimedes from this work. I
thought of Wilbur Knorr many times recently and only wish that he could
have been the one to study the manuscript.


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