The Sotheby Sale

For various reasons, Viscount Lymington offered the Portsmouth Papers for sale in the summer of 1936 - an event which broke up the archive but finally revealed the full extent of Newton’s interests in alchemy and unorthodox theology. Their sale took place in Sotheby’s on 13 and 14 July. The task of organising a new catalogue of these papers in an extremely compressed period fell to J.C. Taylor, Sotheby’s Chief Cataloguer in the department of Books and Manuscripts.[1] Although the present publication is intended to give a more accurate and scholarly account of these papers, Taylor’s catalogue is in many ways a magnificent achievement, especially given the intense pressure of time he was working under, and for over six decades it has been the most significant resource for scholars attempting to keep track of individual items sold at the sale. The event itself was overshadowed by the equally remarkable sale of Henry Oppenheimer’s collection of Impressionist art at Christie’s, and the entire collection raised what must be considered the relatively miserly sum of just over £9,000 -- substantially less than the $18,000 paid by an unknown buyer for a single sheet from one of the ‘Paradoxical Questions’ manuscripts at an auction in 2001.

Having been alerted to the sale only at the last minute by his brother, the economist John Maynard Keynes failed to realise the full significance of what was on offer until the sale had been largely completed. Having realised it, he immediately set about buying up Newton manuscripts from both individuals and dealers, the most notable of whom were Maggs Brothers of London. As the notes to the individual items in this catalogue attest, Keynes soon found himself in competition for many lots with the Jewish scholar and businessman Abraham Yahuda, a man of broad learning who was especially interested in the theological material. Though also fascinated by Newton’s religiosity, Keynes ultimately concentrated on building up the alchemical papers, in some cases exchanging theological papers he had acquired for alchemical ones owned by Yahuda. Keynes generously bequeathed his collection to King’s College, Cambridge at his death in 1946.

The story of the Yahuda archive is more complicated. Believing that a history of Old Testament chronology composed by someone like Newton might still have value, and no doubt intrigued by the comparatively low status accorded to Christ in Newton’s version of Christianity, Yahuda strove for a unified collection of Newton’s theological material, though he sold or attempted to sell a number of the manuscripts he had assembled. Following his death, the fate of the archive was decided only after a number of disputes. The papers were eventually given to the Jewish National and University Library (now National Library of Israel), and having been ably catalogued by David Castillejo,[2] they became generally accessible to scholars at the end of the 1960s.

The difference this made to Newton scholarship is well exemplified by the work of Frank Manuel, who had published the seminal Isaac Newton, Historian in 1963, before the Yahuda material became accessible. Manuel had noted with regard to the material he then had to hand (mainly the Keynes manuscripts in King’s College, Cambridge and the New College manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) that Newton’s later historical, theological and chronological efforts could not ‘in good faith be recommended for their liveliness to a reader of the second half of the twentieth century’, and he surmised that ‘Repetitions are so frequent as to make it doubtful that the remaining pieces would alter the general propositions set forth in this book’.[3] However, he changed his mind after consulting the Yahuda archive in the early 1970s and incorporated much of the new material in his The Religion of Isaac Newton in 1974. Although there are important documents in other libraries that are listed in this catalogue -- notably the huge manuscript in the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Geneva and the Grace K. Babson collection now housed in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California --, it is clear that the astonishing material in the Yahuda collection is by far the most significant for the understanding of Newton’s earlier religious and intellectual development.

[1] [J.C. Taylor], Catalogue of the Newton Papers Sold by Order of the Viscount Lymington (London, 1936). See Peter Spargo, ‘Sotheby’s, Keynes and Yahuda -- the 1936 sale of Newton’s manuscripts’, in P. Harman and A. Shapiro (eds.), The Investigation of Difficult Things (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), 115-34.

[2] D. Castillejo, A Report on the Yahuda Collection of Newton MSS. Bequeathed to the Jewish National and University Library at Jerusalem (Jerusalem, 1969).

[3] Manuel, Isaac Newton, Historian, vii and 254, n. 14.

© 2024 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL -

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