Auction News

Einstein atomic bomb letter stars in Microsoft founder auction


portrait of Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein’s signed 1939 letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging the US leader to start a nuclear bomb programme will be sold at auction.

The letter is the star item in a series of sales of the collections of Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft.

Three auctions will be held at Christie’s in New York from August 23 to September 10.

The letter has an estimate of $4m to $6m (£3.2m to £4.7m).

The high value reflects the huge historical significance of the piece.

While it is described as an Einstein letter, the legendary German-born physicist did not write it alone.

He signed a letter prepared by Leo Szilard (a Hungarian physicist) and others.

Einstein’s name carried huge weight in 1939.

The group wrote describing recent developments in physics and their possible real-world applications.

“A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”

As time would prove they probably underestimated the destructive power of what they then called just “chain reaction.”

The scientists warned that Hitler’s Germany was taking steps to secure uranium supplies from newly invaded Czechoslovakia.

A photograph of the letter from the FDR Presidential Libary. Roosevelt was to act on Einstein’s warning.

They urged Roosevelt to monitor Germany’s plans, to work closely with scientists in America working on chain reaction, and to secure uranium ore supplies.

Einstein reportedly later regretted that the US did achieve the atomic bomb and became a vocal campaigner for nuclear disarmement.

Albert Einstein is one of the most important historical figures of the 20th century. This means his signature and documents bearing it can also be extremely valuable.

The usual provisos apply: to hit the highest values, signed documents must be high quality, in good condition, and carry some meaning.

Thus far, the most valuable Einstein document is the 54-page collection of notes for the Theory of Relativity that realised $13 million at auction in Paris in 2013. That was against a $3.4 million top estimate.

More recently, a note written for a bellboy who delivered the news he’d won the Nobel Prize in 1922 made $1.5 million in 2017.

Einstein’s work is hard to understand, but the man himself, who had a strong visual image and a vibrant political and campaigning life, is a star.

The most famous photo of Einstein – sticking his tongue out – made $125,000 in 2017, thanks to the great man’s signature.

Christie’s currently lists a 1937, two-page initialled letter with equations with an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000.

None can match the significance of a letter from one of history’s greatest minds to the most powerful man in the world, urging him to build the ultimate weapon.

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