'Perfect' 1st edition of Copernicus' controversial book on astronomy could fetch $2.5 million

An open section of a book.
Written in 1543, the controversial book altered how people viewed the universe. (Image credit: Sophia Rare Books)

A first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' groundbreaking work, in which the Polish astronomer proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa, will be going up for sale next month. It is expected to fetch $2.5 million.

Titled "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium," Latin for "On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres," Copernicus' tome was published in 1543 and paved the way for future scientists, including Galileo Galilei, and helped revolutionize the field of astronomy. 

The book was considered highly controversial at the time, as it created a new heliocentric model of the universe in which the sun was at the center of the solar system and the planets revolved around it. The new model went against the widely accepted Catholic Church doctrine that the Earth was at the center. 

About 277 known first-editions exist worldwide (of 500 originally printed, which the Vatican swiftly banned), however most are the property of museums, libraries and other institutions. Only a handful belong to private owners, making this sale especially rare. (In 2008, a similar copy sold at auction for $2.2 million," according to Christie's.)

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"This book only comes up for auction once in a while," Christian Westergaard, the founder of Sophia Rare Books who is handling the sale, told Live Science. "It's rare to find one in this condition. It's a completely perfect copy."

The only real notable change to the leather-bound book is the binding, which Westergaard estimates was replaced sometime during the 18th century. Often copies that come on the market have been tampered with and include institutional stamps removed, pages chemically washed and other restoration work. None of that is present here, Westergaard said.

"Book collecting is a lot like car collecting," Westergaard said. "Collectors want the original."

The manuscript also contains several handwritten annotations, including two early names scrawled onto the title page that can be seen only under UV light. They include the words "Brugiere" and "Jacobi Du Roure." 

"Unfortunately, we do not know anything about the two early owners and probable annotators," Westergaard said. "They seem to have been lost in the haze of time. But maybe one day someone will succeed in shedding light on these."

Westergaard plans to exhibit the manuscript during the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair that will be held April 27 through 30.

Jennifer Nalewicki
Live Science Staff Writer

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Salt Lake City-based journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics and more. She covers several science topics from planet Earth to paleontology and archaeology to health and culture. Prior to freelancing, Jennifer held an Editor role at Time Inc. Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.