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A Mathematical Auction

November 18, 2018

A real auction that is happening soon.

Crop from BestArts auction history source

Samuel Baker and James Christie founded the two premier auction houses in the world. The latter is of course known as Christie’s and dates to 1766. The former dates to 1744 but is not known as Baker’s. It is called Sotheby’s after Baker’s nephew John Sotheby, who took over the business from Baker’s later-partner George Leigh.

Today I want to note an interesting auction that is happening shortly at Sotheby’s.

We were alerted about the auction by Scott Guthery. He is involved with the SIGMAA on History of Mathematics group. He is a well published author of mathematical texts—for example his book titled A Motif of Mathematics: History and Application of the Mediant and the Farey Sequence.

By the way it may be interesting to note that there is a way to state the Riemann Hypothesis, which we have discussed at length recently, as a question about Farey sequences.

Mathematical theorems often have good names, but many are not named after the discoverer. The Law of Eponyms: states that

Theorem 1 If Theorem X bears the name of Y, then it was probably first stated by and proved by Z.

See this for a more detailed discussion. Suffice it to say that John Farey is immortal because “he failed to understand a theorem which [Charles] Haros had proved perfectly fourteen years before.”

The Auction

The comment from Scott was:

For those interested in such things, an upcoming auction at Sotheby’s includes an eye-candy collection of mathematical instruments as well as mathematical texts and, to my surprise, Richard Feynman’s Nobel Prize.

See this 144-page guide for more information:

The auction is part of a larger “Geek Week” event. Besides Feynman’s Nobel Prize, two interesting items are an Enigma machine and a King James Bible inscribed by Albert Einstein as a gift to a friend. Colm Mulcahy, also of the SIGMAA group, pointed out that Mick Jagger allegedly owns an Enigma machine. Here is another cipher machine that is also for sale:

It is a Swiss NEMA Model 45 cipher machine, serial number 311. Very cool.

In The Future?

I have wondered what will happen in the future. The issue is that in the future all important things are going to be digital. Will people buy a digital object? How will museums display things that are all digital? Hmmm.

We find a transitional example in last month’s wild art intervention pulled off by the artist Banksy during an auction at the Sotheby’s HQ in London. An authorized painting of his 2002 mural Girl With Balloon, which was voted Britain’s favorite work of art, was partly shredded by a mechanism in its custom frame. The shredder was activated by remote control just after Sotheby’s had sold it at auction for 860,000 pounds plus the buyer’s premium.

The morphed piece has been renamed, “Love is in the Bin,” and the buyer was content to keep it. Our point is to ask, how will the whole work be exhibited in the future? The “work” is really split into the artifact, a video of the event as it unspooled, and Banksy’s own “Director’s cut” video, which has its own title, “Shred the Love.” These photos, too, are art:

Getty Images (Jack Taylor, Tristan Fewings), Arch. Digest src

For completeness an exhibit would have to include the digital components as well as the physical artifacts to convey the work’s entire nature.

Coming back to mathematical memorabilia, we have had journals and conference proceedings with no printed editions for several decades already. Surely some papers in them are destined to keep the highest levels of fame. How can we value them as artifacts? Is there an “original file” as received by ArXiv or EasyChair? Will computer keyboards be preserved the way some typewriters used by stars of the last century have been? We guess instead that like Banksy’s “Love” they’ll be in the bin.

Open Problems

What will auctions be like a century from now?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. test permalink
    November 18, 2018 3:21 pm


  2. Paul W. Homer permalink
    November 18, 2018 4:45 pm

    People will always want to collect things. It seems to be a deeply wired attribute of our species. In the first part of the digital age, we lost that. It became so easy to copy stuff online that it had little value to collectors. But that is changing now as projects like CryptoKitties mature. This new generation of decentralized technologies comes with the ability to create ‘non-fungible’ references within the digital space. We can thus identify and interchange unique items across the internet. Some of these will be purely digital; some will be tied to items in the real world. In that way, auctions will continue. Some will go online, but some will still take place in revered institutions. As long as there is demand, people will find a way to amass collections.

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