February 9, 2006

· Books

The BBC reports a remarkable find:

A “lost” science manuscript from the 1600s found in a cupboard in a house during a routine valuation is expected to fetch more than £1m at auction. The hand-written document – penned by Dr Robert Hooke – contains the minutes of the Royal Society from 1661 to 1682, experts said.

It was found in a house in Hampshire, where it is thought to have lain hidden in a cupboard for about 50 years. The owners had no idea of its value. It will be auctioned in London next month. …

I always wonder how this kind of thing happens. I mean, I know its possible for very old and valuable books to appear in estate sales and so on, especially when the ones of interest might be hidden amongst hundreds of others or not immediately of obvious worth. But to be unaware of the potential interest of any handwritten manuscript that’s obviously hundreds of years old … I don’t know. Maybe some old homes are just drowning in antiques. And indeed, the report suggests something like this was the case—though in a way that does seem just a bit too formulaic to believe:

It was discovered in a private house where other items were being valued by an antiques expert and it was only as he left that the family—whose identity is being kept secret—thought to show him the manuscript. “The valuer was just leaving when this document was produced from a cupboard,” she said. “All the vendor knows is that the document had been in the family as long as she can remember. She doesn’t know how it got into the family.”

I suppose that once this discovery was made and the valuer was on his way out, he tripped over the hallway rug and noticed that the slate slab underneath bore the inscription “HIC IACET ARTORIVS REX QVONDAM REXQVE FVTVRVS.”

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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