Illuminating Space: Images from a private Virginian collection star at Bonhams

Illuminating Space
Images from a Private Virginian Collection
5 Dec 2012
New York

New York — Bonhams spotlights mankind's view of the heavens at its Illuminating Space single-owner auction in New York on December 5. Historically significant in its depth and quality, the 187 lots from an extensive private collection span three centuries with offerings of telescopes, lunar and planetary globes, photographs, manuscripts, documents and prints.

The mysteries of the universe have long fueled the imaginations and intellectual pursuits of man, spawning curiosity and catalysing technological advancements to facilitate visual and scientific study. This significant collection documents the quest to unlock and understand the secrets of space.

Observation of celestial bodies was facilitated by such inventors as Claude-Siméon Passemant whose circa 1750, six-inch reflecting telescope with speculum metal mirror (est. $30,000-$50,000), probably the largest Passemant telescope in private hands, leads off the auction. Passemant published a treatise entitled Construction d'un télescope de réflexion in 1738, and was engineer to the Académie des sciences. King Louis XV honoured him with the designation as "ingénieur du Roi" and the provision of quarters for him in the Louvre in 1749.

The Moon has held especial intrigue for scientists, artists and casual gazers alike. Famed British painter and portraitist John Russell's lunar fascination began in his youth when he drew his telescopic observations. He studied the phases of Moon, recognising the scientific inadequacies of simple lunar globes that did not account for the Moon's "wobbling" motion and the resultant change in the appearance of the Sun's beams on its surface. He created a Selenographia globe, depicting an accurately drawn and engraved Moon surface (estimate $200,000-$300,000). A brass stand with graduated scales and rack and pinion adjustments demonstrated the Moon's motion, and a small globe represented the Earth's parallax. The mount-apparatus showed the Sun's "boundary of light" to aid identification of the topographic features on the edge of the lunar disc. No more than eleven Selenographia globes are extant, six of which are in institutional collections.

Space photography embraces the realms of both art and science. French mathematicians Pierre Henri Puiseux and Maurice Loewy found their muse in the Moon, taking photographs that remained unrivalled until those by NASA's Lunar Orbiter in the 1960s. Puiseux's and Loewy's four large-format photogravures of the quadrants of the Moon (estimate $12,000-$18,000) are significantly larger than the plates in their Atlas photographique de la lune (Paris, 1896-1910), and were probably created specifically for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Using the 24-inch equatorial coudé refractor telescope that they designed, they could only capture four or five lunar images on each of the fifty or sixty nights of perfect weather conditions per year. As a result, their Atlas took 14 years to complete.

Man provided a reversed perspective with a Lunar Orbiter I photograph of the Earth taken from the Moon in 1966. This telephoto, three-gelatin silver print panorama shows the Moon's craters Hilbert, Khvolson and Meitner in the foreground with the Earth's US East Coast in afternoon sunlight in the distant background (estimate $8,000-12,000). Then Director of Langley Research Centre Floyd L. Thompson reflected that, "we here on the Earth have been provided a sobering glimpse of the spectacle of our own planet as it will be seen by a few of our generation in their pursuit of the manned exploration of space."

The US Information Agency commissioned Kodak to create a giant mosaic of Lunar Orbiter IV photographs of the near side of the Moon taken from May 11-25, 1967 (estimate $80,000-$100,000). A continuous image of the Moon's surface was fashioned by mounting four photographic prints on each of 218 overlapping panels. The 34 x 24' compilation is probably the largest vintage photograph of the Moon in existence. The project provided an opportunity for excellent public relations as well as for the public to "walk on the Moon" when the mosaic was placed on the floor and covered with clear Lucite. Only two mosaics in this format were produced. One was exhibited at the International Astronomical Union Meeting in Prague in late August 1967. The present example is the second copy, believed to have been a backup. Many searches have failed to locate the Prague mosaic, which must be presumed lost.

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December 1 and 2, 12pm-5pm
December 3, 10am-6pm
December 4, 10am-5pm

December 5 in New York


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