Sunday, 15 February 2015

Found and lost? the manuscripts of Madame du Châtelet

Lot 16: Exposition abrégée du systè Newton
On 29th October 2012 there was much excitement when a host of scientific manuscripts by Émilie du Châtelet went under the hammer at Christie's in Paris.  They included a corrected version of her translation of Newton, Exposition abrégée du système du monde selon les principes de Mr Newton, two unpublished works on Newton's optics and various studies on geometry, arithmetic and physics. A copy of Voltaire's Eléments de la philosophie de Newton contained annotations by both Madame du Châtelet and Voltaire himself, confirmation  - if any were needed -  that.Émilie was the brains behind the work.  Lesser lots included parts, written up in the hand of Voltaire's secretary Longchamp, from three theatrical works performed at the "petit théâtre".

Lot 17: Three plays by Voltaire performed at Cirey

Lot 3:  Portrait of Emilie  after Marianne Loir.
The story behind the sale is nice tale of unexpected rediscovery. Almost nothing remains of the original furnishings from Cirey and Madame du Châtelet's papers had long been supposed destroyed, either on her death in 1749 or after the execution of her son, Louis Marie Florent du Châtelet, in 1793. But in 2010 the whole family archive was miraculous found intact in ten wooden boxes in the attic of a house in Rosnay-l'Hôpital (Aube), where Cirey's inheritors had moved when the chateau was sold in 1892;  up to this time the documents had been tenaciously guarded by an elderly female descendant. Documents concerning the chateau, dating back to 13th century, were deposited in the Departmental Archives of Haute-Marne at Chaumont. But there was no legal impediment to the sale of Madame du Châtelet's personal manuscripts and joy gave way to concern as the scholarly community anticipated the break-up of the newly acquired collection.  Despite a campaign which resulted in a petition from 1,4000 researchers worldwide, the French Ministry of Culture did not move to preempt.  The auction went ahead and the manuscripts made record prices:  € 961,000 (double the estimate) for the Exposition abrégée; € 421,000 for Voltaire's Eléments de la philosophie de Newton  (against an estimate of € 60,000); four times the expected amount for two works on optics.

Lot 17: Abrégé de l'optique de mr Newton

And loss?

The purchaser was financier Gérard Lhéritier , president and founder of Aristophil, a company specialising in rare manuscripts and owner of the Musée des lettres et manuscrits, boulevard Saint-Germain, where the collection includes the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom and Napoleon's wedding certificate.  Despite a few qualms about private ownership, La Gazette des Délices for Winter 2012 pronounced itself pleased: French taxpayers had saved their euros, the manuscripts were kept together and the Bibliothèque nationale had been promised detailed descriptions.  In March 2013 the manuscripts went on temporary exhibition; viewers were even furnished with a magnifying glass for detailed inspection. There was just the slight worry that operatives were on hand apparently offering the manuscripts in lots "for sale".......

Publicity video by Aristophil. Despite the slick production, this is a pretty poor effort (for instance, I think it was the poet J-B Rousseau, not Jean-Jacques who was the family house guest!)

All was, indeed, not well -  as became apparent last November, when the museum and various branches of Aristophil were subject to a dramatic descente by the anti-fraud brigade......The company is accused of “deceptive marketing practices," and“gang fraud."(!)  Aristophil's basic scheme sounds like something out of the 18th-century.  Clients  are invited to "buy" lots  -  effectively acquire shares - in rare manuscripts, with promises of attractive returns.  The market has been artificially inflated by the company's own aggressive buying strategy. This is big money: Aristophil  are said to own five percent of the global books, letters and manuscript market estimated at three billion euros a year. They have created a "speculative bubble" which is now set to burst.  Legal proceedings against them started as early as 2010 and one of the objectives of November raids was to seize assets for Aristophil's clients.

The investigation is likely to be a long one. Currently the museum is still open (with a Valentine's Day exhibition) and the media fightback has begun with a "Soutenons Aristophil"  website and Facebook page.  All we can only hope for the long term is that Emilie's manuscripts stay safe and don't disappear again, this time into some creditor's bank vault....


Details of the sale 
Christie's website:

"Les manuscrits et souvenirs d'Emilie du Châtelet vendus pour 3,28 millions d'euros", L'Obs 29/10/12.

Finding  the manuscripts
Andrew Brown, " 'Minerve dictait et j’écrivais':les archives Du Châtelet retrouvées"  Cahiers Voltaire, 11 (2012), p.7-9.

Il faut sauver les archives de Voltaire, Le, 28/09/12

Financial fraud?"
€500 Million Ponzi Scheme Suspected at Paris Museum" Artnet, 20/11/14.

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