The 1936 Sotheby’s auction of Newton’s papers, and a mystery

[UPDATE – The manuscript is in safe hands in New York, I’ve now learned. For more details, see below.]

One of the key early scenes in my novel “The Secret Fire” is a 1936 auction at Sotheby’s in London of a vast collection of unpublished manuscripts by Sir Isaac Newton, many of them focusing on two topics Newton preferred to keep secret during his lifetime: his unorthodox religious views, and his extensive research into alchemy.

Newton's Papers - 1936 auction catalogue

In “The Secret Fire,” the auction leads to a grisly end for a hapless bookseller’s agent, who by buying one of the Newton papers for the British secret service, makes himself the target of a Nazi agent charged with recovering the very same document for his own masters.

While the murder is imagined, the auction certainly took place — and a mystery persisted for many years about the fate of the Newton document in question, entitled “The Three Mysterious Fires”.

Sotheby’s held the auction on July 13-14, 1936 at their New Bond Street premises (which were then somewhat smaller, lacking today’s rear entrance on St George St).  The illustrated catalogue, of which I was thrilled to find a rare copy (pictured above) during my research, describes the trove of “unpublished autograph manuscripts (containing at a conservative estimate some three million words) … The MSS. on Alchemy … show (Newton) to have assimilated the whole corpus of Alchemical Literature and to have been the most learned adept of all time.”

None of this is to challenge Newton’s place as the pre-eminent scientific mind of his own, or perhaps any other age, of course. Yet, as the catalogue’s foreword notes: “His greatest discoveries in this particular field (the Calculus, the Law of Gravitation, and the Composition of Light) were all made before he was twenty-four. In later years mathematics became tedious to him and he avoided them as much as his reputation would allow.  Alchemy and Theology were his two abiding interests.” (The foreword, though unsigned, was probably written by Sotheby’s cataloguer John Taylor, who went on to serve in Military Intelligence during World War Two.)

Newton statue in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, UK

A detailed account of the auction has been published by P.E. Spargo in “The Investigation of Difficult Things“, a 1992 collection of scholarly essays on Newton and the history of the exact sciences. Among those attending the auction, accompanied by his brother Geoffrey, was the economist John Maynard Keynes, who bought many of the most historically important lots out of his own pocket, and later left them to King’s College, Cambridge.

After reading Newton’s alchemical writings, Keynes was moved to write a few years later that Newton “was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians … Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that was in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world.”

As part of the story of both “The Secret Fire” and “The Malice Box”, I imagine that Newton’s many years of alchemical experimentation and mystical speculation may have led him to discover the true nature of such mysterious goals of alchemy as the Philosopher’s Stone and the Secret Fire. Appalled at the potentially destructive power of his discovery, unwilling to share it yet unable to destroy it, he then hid the discovery away, in semi-plain sight, for future generations to grapple with.

In “The Secret Fire”, the 1,200-word manuscript called “The Three Mysterious Fires” holds part of the secret.

Did it really exist? Most certainly. A photograph of it (see below) was included in the 1936 Sotheby’s catalogue.

The Three Mysterious Fires

Where is it now? For many years that was a mystery. The Newton Project, which seeks to place digital copies online of all Newton’s writings, records that it was bought at the auction by a representative of Francis Edwards, the booksellers, for 19 pounds and 10 shillings. It then disappeared into private hands until 1971, when – I learned in 2010 – it was presented, protected in a red morocco slip case, to Columbia University by the Friends of the Columbia Libraries. It resides there now, in the Special Collections of the university libraries.

(Photographs by Martin Langfield)

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