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Einstein’s Maxims on Life Fetch $1.8 Million at Auction

The notes were given as a tip to a Tokyo bellboy in 1922

(Orren Jack Turner via Wikimedia CC)
smithsonian.com

Over 60 years after his death, it seems Albert Einstein is still constantly in the news cycle—most recently when a group of scientists won the Nobel Prize for confirming Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space-time. Now, he’s making headlines for a squarely unscientific reason: two of his signed notes with advice on living a happy life sold at auction for a combined $1.8 million, Rachel Siegel at The Washington Post reports.

The physicist penned the notes while visiting Japan in 1922 as part of a lecture tour in Asia, Laurel Wamsley at NPR reports. He had just learned that he was the recipient of the 1921 Nobel Prize, and when he gave his first lecture in Tokyo, 2,500 people paid to see the four-hour-long talk. The attention was overwhelming. “No living person deserves this sort of reception," he told his wife, Elsa, when he saw a mass of people trying to get a glimpse of him on his hotel balcony at the Imperial Hotel. “I’m afraid we’re swindlers. We’ll end up in prison yet.”

When a bellboy came by to deliver a message, Wamsley reports Einstein either did not have enough small change to tip him or the courier refused the tip. But the scientist insisted on giving the boy something, so he jotted down two notes, one on hotel stationary and one on a random piece of paper, telling the courier they might be worth something some day.

While many of Einstein’s thoughts would change the course of history, his “theories of happiness” are a little generic. One note reads, “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” The other simply reads, “Where there is a will, there is a way.”

Despite their simplicity, Dan Bilefsky at The New York Times reports that the first note sold at Winner’s Auction House in Jerusalem for $1.56 million while the shorter note sold for $250,000. “It was an all-time record for an auction of a document in Israel, and it was just wow, wow, wow,” Meni Chadad, spokesperson for the auction house, tells Bilefsky. Winner’s predicted the notes might sell for $5,000 to $8,000.

“I think the value can be explained by the fact that the story behind the tip is so uplifting and inspiring, and because Einstein continues to be a global rock star long after his death," he says.

Avi Blumenthal, another representative of the auction house, tells Amy Spiro at The Jerusalem Post that the letters came from the grandson of the bellboy's brother. “He held on to the letter for many years, and a few months ago we held an auction of letters Einstein wrote to Professor David Bohm, on mathematics, and they were sold at a nice price,” Blumenthal says. “It was publicized in a newspaper in Germany where he [the great-nephew] lives, and he saw this and said ‘Okay, if they get good prices on Einstein I’ll turn to them.’”

The final price of the letter is surprising considering other recent auctions of more substantial Einsteinia have sold for much less. A 1938 letter from Einstein to his best friend, Swiss/Italian engineer Michele Besso, sold at a Los Angeles auction house for $31,250. In the letter, he decries of the naivete of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and warns that Hitler was likely preparing to invade other nations. In July, an original print of the iconic photo in which Einstein sticks out his tongue sold for $125,000.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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