Albert Einstein letter to FDR may sell for $4 million

Albert Einstein. (Photo: AFP)
Albert Einstein. (Photo: AFP)

Summary

Paul Allen previously owned the letter the scientist wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt to warn him about Germany’s nuclear research.

One of the most pivotal letters Albert Einstein ever wrote is up for sale.

In the summer of 1939, with war in Europe looming, several U.S. scientists entreated Einstein to warn President Franklin D. Roosevelt about recent advances in nuclear research that Germany might leverage to invent an atomic bomb. Einstein, a pacifist, set to work.

The renowned physicist holed up in a cabin on Long Island’s North Shore with a fellow scientist, Leo Szilard, who helped him write a letter beseeching Roosevelt to invest in atomic energy research before the Nazis could harness the same science to make “extremely powerful bombs." Roosevelt, equally spooked, responded by forming a committee that served as a precursor to the Manhattan Project—the scientific endeavor chronicled in last year’s hit film “Oppenheimer."

Today, Einstein’s original letter to Roosevelt is held at the president’s namesake library and museum in Hyde Park, N.Y. But the physicist also wrote and signed a second, slightly shorter version that Szilard held on to for safekeeping, and this version is now up for sale.

This September, Christie’s plans to ask at least $4 million for this two-page, typed letter, which is dated Aug. 2, 1939, and begins bluntly. “Sir: Recent work in nuclear physics made it probable that uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy."

Szilard kept his version of Einstein’s letter for the rest of his life; his heirs later sold it off. In 2002, publisher and collector Malcolm S. Forbes caused a stir when he auctioned off the letter for $2.1 million—a sum that reset the record at the time for anything connected to Einstein or Roosevelt and the first 20th-century historical document to top $1 million.

The letter’s winning bidder was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose estate is reselling the document now. The sale follows the massive, $1.6 billion selloff of Allen’s art collection two years ago, a moment that’s come to symbolize the last market peak. Art values are more volatile today, but dealers say collectors tend to show up for pieces with historical ties to American icons. This letter, written by one and addressed to another, may offer a compelling twofer.

The letter isn’t likely to break the $13 million record set in 2021 for one of Einstein’s few surviving records detailing his theory of general relativity. But the record for any letter by Einstein is $2.8 million set in 2018 for a letter in which the physicist ruminates on God and religion.

Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, said collectors like Allen trace a direct link from Einstein’s letter and the origins of the Manhattan Project to subsequent technological breakthroughs that fueled the space race and eventually the computer age—the arena where Allen made his own mark. Before he died in 2018, Allen displayed much of his computer collection at his now-shuttered Seattle museum, Living Computers: Museum + Labs. But the collector kept his Einstein letter private, Porter said.

“He undoubtedly knew it was one of the most important documents in the history of the 20th century, and that’s not the kind of thing you just hang in your office," Porter said. More likely, Porter said the collector kept the pages stored where they wouldn’t be damaged by sunlight.

William Harris, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, said the museum occasionally exhibits its own original letter, though it prefers to display a facsimile because Einstein signed it using a pencil, and curators don’t want anything to fade.

Einstein was a “global superstar" by the time he wrote the president, Harris said, and the two men were already acquaintances. Five years earlier, Roosevelt even invited Einstein to stay overnight at the White House, where they dined, Harris said.

Harris said scientists smartly reasoned that if Einstein warned the president about the risks and rewards of atomic energy, Roosevelt would take it seriously—and he did. “Roosevelt wouldn’t have understood the science right away, but he would’ve trusted the sender," he said.

Christie’s plans to include its Einstein atomic-bomb letter in one of three sales comprising Allen’s collection of scientific and technological pieces. Other offerings in the coming series will include a 1971 computer from the first series ever used by Allen and his Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates; the computer from this PDP-10 series is estimated to sell for at least $30,000.

Also up for grabs: A Gemini spacesuit that once belonged to spacewalking astronaut Ed White is also estimated to sell for at least $80,000. The series will also include some space-themed art Allen collected over the years, including Chesley Bonestell’s 1952 planetary scene, “Saturn as Seen from Titan." It’s estimated to sell for at least $30,000.

Write to Kelly Crow at kelly.crow@wsj.com

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