Rare astrolobe soars in science sale

A very rare 15th-century astrolabe sold for £508,400, more than twice its pre-sale estimate at Bonhams’ recent Important Instruments of Science and Technology Sale.

The Important Regiomontanus/Cardinal Bessarion Astrolabe bears the inscription: “Under the protection of the divine Bessarion on whom all can be said to depend I arise in Rome the work of John 1462”, the Regiomontanus/Cardinal Bessarion astrolabe was a testament to patronage between a young German humanist and Greek Cardinal.

Johannes Bessarion entered the order of St Basil at an early age. He was created a Cardinal-priest by Pope Eugenius IV in 1439 and soon became a champion for the reunification of the Greek and Roman churches, becoming Patriarch of Constantinople in 1463. Johann Müller (1436-76), later known as Regiomontanus, was a student at the University of Vienna, where, under the tutelage of celebrated astronomer Georg Peurbach, he entered Bessarion’s circle in May 1460. This astrolabe was one of his early works, marking the beginning of a patronage relationship defined by a shared passion for the humanities.

Only one of five dated astrolabes of this type in the world, the Regiomontanus/Bessarion model is a direct link to a period of scientific and spiritual transition in European culture. The humanist Roman script used in the engraving is characteristic of the 15th century, but it retains traces of the preceding Gothic era, in its numerals and the use of the quatrefoil motif.

Jon Baddeley, Bonhams Specialist, said: ‘This is one of the strongest results we’ve seen at auction at Bonhams Knightsbridge in the past decade. The astrolabe, an early smartphone of sorts, was a vital tool, used for not only telling the time, but mapping one’s location, tracking the stars, and even making life decisions.”

Other highlights of the sale include:

  • A Rare Medieval Brass Astrolabe from the late 13th/early 14th century sold for £102,000 against a pre-sale estimate of £60,000-90,000.

  • A Fine silver and gilt brass nocturnal, German, late 17th century sold for £48,640 against a pre-sale estimate of £10,000-15,000.
  • A Rare Charles Whitwell Gilt Brass Astronomical Compendium, English, dated 1608 sold for £28,160 against a pre-sale estimate of £25,000-35,000.
  • A Rare John Miller 3-inch pocket globe, Scottish, published 1793 sold for £24,320 against a pre-sale estimate of £6,000-9,000.
  • A Fine Timothée Collet silver and gilt brass portable sundial, French, dated 1663 sold for £20,480 against a pre-sale estimate of £5,000-8,000.