Funny how things turn up

by Kieran Healy on February 9, 2006

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.”



Omri 02.09.06 at 11:15 pm

In my dreams, I’m hiking through southern France where I find a cache of papyrus that has the travelogue of Pytheas of Massalia.


M. Gordon 02.09.06 at 11:43 pm

There’s a movie called, I think, The Ninth Gate, where Johnny Depp plays a very unscrupulous rare book dealer, and there’s a pretty amusing bit in the beginning where he cons this clueless family out of a very rare book by telling them that their collection is incredibly valuable, and that all the other book dealers were trying to scam them by low balling them, but that this particular volume, though not worth much, is of great interest to him, and he’ll take it off their hands right now for a token, if they don’t mind…


M. Gordon 02.09.06 at 11:44 pm

Oh, and, having plowed through about 1/3 of Quicksilver, and having just finished listening to a series of lectures from The Learning Company on the history of science from antiquity to the early 18th century, I am very excited by this news.


fjm 02.10.06 at 2:17 am

It’s amazing how “recent” books can look. A diary from sixteen hundred looks not unlike one from nineteen hundred.

Also, it’s quite likely that someone did know what they had, but owned it before it would have been considered terribly valuable (say any time much before 1870). When they died, they didn’t tell anyone it was important because they didn’t think it was.

Ideas of what is important change radically. My entire MA thesis was based on a set of letters that someone removed from the archive bonfire five years before. They had been marked for burning because they were about a small Quaker relief project that happened to have been run by people none of whom became great names in the movement. So of course they weren’t important. They are now *considered* important because–as I pointed out–they explain the changes which took place in the organisation over that period that led them to win the Nobel Peace Prize.


Harald Korneliussen 02.10.06 at 2:48 am

I’m not so steady in latin, but is that “Here lies Arthur, the once and future king”?


yonray 02.10.06 at 3:37 am

Well it certainly sounds odd: “the valuer was just leaving when…” – although that could well be a spin the reporter put on it. But once you start thinking along those lines, doesn’t it seem just a little surprising the speed with which a campaign, orchestrated by Lisa Jardine herself, has been launched to RAISE A MILLION QUID


yonray 02.10.06 at 3:37 am

… to buy them and save them from export?


yonray 02.10.06 at 3:46 am

fjm – I remember attending a lecture by JH Prynne where in a longish aside he spoke of a period during WW2 when the University was required to give up books of little value for recycling. He and a friend edited a poetry magazine which had a substantial archive and were tasked with producing a certain tonnage. They worked volume by volume, having to decide in a matter or seconds whether or not each was to survive or not. He concluded by saying that that was perhaps the most intense application of Practical Criticism ever.


garymar 02.10.06 at 7:11 am

How envious this makes me feel! This is the difference between the New World and the Old – tons of old stuff hidden everywhere.

Of course we have the golden plates of sacred scripture, written in “reformed Egyptian”, that the angel Moroni showed to Joseph Smith in upstate New York. I’m sure they’re still lying around there somewhere.

And once, as a boy in my own backyard in Michigan, I cracked open a rock and found the perfect fossil of a trilobyte inside.


joel turnipseed 02.10.06 at 8:39 am

I have a 1750s copy, complete, of the “Laws and Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony” that my grandfather bought when Wesleyan, where he was teaching at the time, discarded. I’ve been in homes and small libraries in New England/Atlantic Coast where some pretty amazing stuff sits on the shelves, unprotected and in many cases unknown as to value. A friend of mine has found something like a dozen Whitman letters in his lifetime.

So, not surprising at all.

I actually had a friend of mine recently tell me a story of a long-retired professor, with no heirs, who died and whose 2000+ volume library was thrown in the… dumpsters as his house was cleared for sale. My friend, a contractor who is a big book collector, was told this story by one of his subs, a plumber who’d been on the professor job, when the plumber looked around his house and said, “Hey, you sure got a lot of books–you shoulda seen the house I worked on last week…”

I’m guessing a 90-year-old history professor had some pretty interesting (and valuable) stuff that just went “poof!” in a cloud of dust.



Simstim 02.10.06 at 8:39 am

I’ve found some old book called the “Necronomicon” in the cellar, is it worth much?


Barry 02.10.06 at 8:57 am

simistim, you’ll have to read the first chapter. If you get back to us, it’s not worth much. If you go horribly insane, it’ll sell for enough to cover the costs at an exclusive private asylum, in Massachusets….


Anne 02.10.06 at 9:09 am

No, not surprising at all. All sorts of manuscripts are knocking around people’s attics.

Even in collections, stuff’s “hidden” cause it doesn’t look important at first glance, hasn’t been cataloged, is in some box somewhere —

I once tracked down some late medieval churchwardens’ accounts that were LOST — turned out they’d been “borrowed” by the parish solicitor, so therefore weren’t in the parish safe where they were supposed to be; then, on the death of the said solicitor, they’d been given to a local museum, in a box of other stuff, and since nobody had the time to go through the box, the museum had no idea they had it (and were in fact sort of snippy when asked) —

only actually demanding to SEE THE BOX turned up the accounts.

And that’s something we knew had to at least be in the area.

Lots of stuff out there.



David Weigel 02.10.06 at 9:16 am

Looking forward to this episode of Cash In The Attic.


Jackmormon 02.10.06 at 9:19 am

I used to work for a private company that traded and brokered historical documents. There is a private market for historical documents today that I don’t think existed some forty years ago. You should see how inflated prices for some not particularly significant documents (but it’s got Lincoln’s signature!!!1!) can be…

I really do think that people who realized that X scrap of paper had some historical interest used to simply turn it over to the local historical institute or university library (where the curators would often just file it away). Today, if they recognize that a thing is a) old and b) potentially valuable, they go directly to brokers and auction houses. I spent a lot of time on the phone with people convinced they had found valuable autograph manuscripts when in fact they had facsimiles. It can’t all be due to “Antiques Roadshow,” but that’s my shorthand for the phenomenon.


Mr. Bill 02.10.06 at 9:45 am

Think of Robert Graves’ I, Claudiuswhere Claudius decides to just leave his memoir among his other papers instead of burying it in leaden casket, trusting the gods (or maybe Clio, muse of History)to get it to the right hands…
My late wife found a Cunard White Star liner solid silver berry bowl, a lovely thing with scallop shell handles, in a yard sale in McCaysville, GA, one of the most defiantly redneck places on the planet.
The story of how it got there would be interesting…


Chris Negado 02.10.06 at 10:12 am

Today we are no longer creating valuable papers. A future “valuer” will look at a fifty plus year old piece of digital media and will be unable to read anything (if there even was anything to begin with)once written on it.

Paper lasts but CD’s, flash drives etc. do not.


Matt 02.10.06 at 10:17 am

The anecdote sounds like a Steve Jobs ‘.. and one more thing’ setup. And 50 years isn’t all that long ago. Where was it before that?


des von bladet 02.10.06 at 10:36 am

Re 17. I for one write plenty of stuff on paper. Sadly, though, I have a marked preference for low-grade non-acid-free rubbish that may even out-crumble a 5 1/4 floppy.


Tim 02.10.06 at 1:13 pm

Call me a cynic, but isn’t this how you’d turn something that you stole from a library or museum into legal tender? And become a bumbling hero in the process?


mds 02.10.06 at 2:37 pm

Of course we have the golden plates of sacred scripture, written in “reformed Egyptian”, that the angel Moroni showed to Joseph Smith in upstate New York. I’m sure they’re still lying around there somewhere.

No, no, no. Moroni took the plates and special glasses back to Heaven. Good grief, what are they teaching young people in school nowadays?

Paper lasts but CD’s, flash drives etc. do not.

Thank goodness for the Rapture of the Nerds. Once we’re all immortals living in Dyson Spheres, we won’t need archaeologists anymore. Well, for our own stuff.

So where do people line up on the whole Hooke vs. Newton debate? I’m a bit biased myself, given how vicious Newton was with Leibniz. I mean, how many times can one fellow say, “Yeah, I worked that out years ago” and get away with it?


otto 02.10.06 at 2:52 pm

I have always wondered if you back owe inheritance taxes when you ‘discover’ that Raphael in your palace.


Mo MacArbie 02.10.06 at 4:17 pm

m.gordon, just wait until you get to The System of the World


dipnut 02.10.06 at 4:40 pm

Just last month, an Australian couple were walking on the beach when they noticed a strange lump of lipidic gunk. They poked at it for a while, trying to figure out what it was. Then they left. A couple of weeks later, they were walking there again, and came across the same lump. The wife persuaded the husband to bring the lump home, so they might consult an expert: what is this mysterious lump?

Turned out to be ambergris, worth about $300,000. That’s not in the same league as the Hooke manuscript, but it’s still quite a find.


FMguru 02.10.06 at 5:54 pm

Speaking of impossibly ancient things turning up in unexpected places, I see that an unopened tomb has been discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings – the first one in 84 years – and that it’s about 25 feet from Tut’s burial chamber. Way cool.



Jim 02.10.06 at 7:22 pm

Then there was Mohammed Ali Samman’s mother who burnt several sections of the Gnostic gospels (AD 350-400) found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Used it to light the cooking fire with.


dearieme 02.10.06 at 7:38 pm

“Moroni”: and they say that Americans don’t do irony.


paul 02.10.06 at 9:25 pm

Some Flaubert papers were also found–,,25341-2020120,00.html.


David B 02.10.06 at 10:57 pm

If the diary is written in Robert Hooke’s hand, I suspect it covers a much shorter period than stated in this report. Hooke was only Secretary of the RS for a few years, after the death of Oldenburg. But it would still be a very important find.


Omri 02.11.06 at 12:50 am

I was once looking through the shelves of the Harvard Med library, when I ran into the early issues of the Annals of Eugenics (1920’s, 1910’s). It was, um, interesting. I do hope they stay preserved. They were an excellent source of case studies in pathological science.


Omri 02.11.06 at 12:53 am

dearime: Americans are the Easter Bunny of irony. We leave eggs of it everywhere. It’s up to the rest of you to pick’em up.


nick s 02.11.06 at 1:30 am

If the diary is written in Robert Hooke’s hand, I suspect it covers a much shorter period than stated in this report.

Bonhams has the details: it’s not a minute-book per se, but a record of experiments he conducted as Curator (one presumes, the ones featured in Philosophical Transactions, such as the camera lucida), and his correspondence as Secretary. 520pp. And the sooner it’s transcribed, the better.

Provenance? Gawd knows.


Jenny Jo 02.12.06 at 1:46 am

I hope they find the “white knight” they’re looking for.

I’m about to start System of the World…should I be frightened?


Jackmormon 02.12.06 at 2:45 am

#17–Oh, if you’re worth it, they’ll crack your OS. In 2000–so long ago!–I attended a few classes in “Criticisme Genetique,” where the professor professed her institute’s ability to analyze root-logs if that’s what was in question. I assure you that if, say, Pynchon or Kissinger’s private files were accesible only via expertise in FORTRAN (or whatever), that data will get read.

(The rest of us might indeed pass into ahistoricality, as is probably fitting. Maybe some of us will have hacking descendents.)


Todd Larason 02.12.06 at 5:52 am

Kage Baker’s “Company” books (_In the Garden of Iden_ and so on) tell the story of a conspiracy of immortal cyborgs who plant such things in places where they can be ‘discovered’ decades or centuries later, to the profit of the conspiracy’s future ringleaders.

Or at least, that’s how they started out. It’s gotten more complicated since the beginning.


Ellen1910 02.13.06 at 4:51 am

Is it “rex quondam” or “quondam rex“?

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