Rare scientific book printed in 1555 sells for $3 million at auction

Andreas Vesalius’ de Humani Corporis Fabrica is viewed as the greatest anatomical atlas of the Renaissance and a masterpiece of medical science

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Book collectors dream of finding something rare.

But North Vancouver collector Dr. Gerry Vogrincic found something truly unique: the personal, annotated copy of Andreas Vesalius’s masterwork on anatomy de Humani Corporis Fabrica, printed in 1555.

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Christie’s auction in New York describes it as “the greatest anatomical atlas of the Renaissance and a masterpiece of medical science, pedagogy, and typographical design.”

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It recently was up for auction at Christie’s online sale of fine printed books and manuscripts, and sold for $2,997,350.

“It’s just a remarkable story, the whole thing,” said Vogrincic, a retired pathologist who worked at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver.

Vogrincic collects “rare old medical books,” and in 2007 bid on a copy of de Humani Corporis Fabrica at an auction in Hamburg, Germany.

No one had any idea it was Vesalius’ own copy.

“I think my bid was about 9,000 euros initially, which didn’t meet the reserve of 11,000 euros,” he recounted.

“About a week later I got an email from the auction house saying my bid was the closest to the reserve, and if I would bump it up to 11,000 euro they would sell me the book, which I did. After commission it came to about 13,000 euros in total. That would have been around $18,000 or $19,000 Canadian at the time.”

The invoice was in German. Vogrincic thought he had ticked the box to have it delivered by courier. Instead, it was sent by regular mail and it took five weeks to arrive.

“The saving grace is that I didn’t know what it was back then, because nobody actually knew that,” he said.

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After receiving the large book, which is 850 pages and filled with beautiful woodcut illustrations and diagrams, Vogrincic knew he had something different.

“This is a huge book of Latin, and the annotation is throughout the book,” he said.

“The other thing that struck me very quickly was the nature of the annotations. … They were crossing out huge numbers of sentences, there were big Xs through paragraphs of the text, and I’d never seen that before.

“It was clear this wasn’t just a reader underlining and making notes, it was somebody who was crossing out and rewriting the text.

“It occurred to me … this might be the author, who’s revising his book.”

Another book annotated by Vesalius had sold at Christie’s in 1998. Vogrincic got the catalogue and made comparisons.

The book in the catalogue had an unusual insertion symbol — an inverted V with a dot.

“He used that in the margin, and he used that symbol in the text to show where the writing should go. And, sure enough, when I looked in the Fabrica he used that same inverted V and dot.”

An example of the extensive annotations Andreas Vesalius made in a copy of his landmark book on anatomy, de Humani Corporis Fabrica. The copy recently sold for $3 million at auction in Christie’s in New York. Christie’s Images Limited

Examples of Vesalius’ handwriting are rare — there are only about 10 known letters by him.

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Vesalius’ book had been revolutionary in its day, and was greeted by a storm of criticism.

“Vesalius became so angry at this that one evening, he burned all of his books and manuscripts in a fire,” said Vogrincic.

Fortunately, two Vesalius letters are in the Uppsala University collection in Sweden, which made photocopies of them for Vogrincic.

The two letters from Sweden had about 1,200 words, and Vogrincic estimated 100 were similar.

“You could photograph them next to each other and overlap them, they were so identical,” he said.

But he didn’t read Latin. So he contacted Prof. Vivian Nutton, a Vesalius expert in London, England. After a few months of research, Nutton confirmed Vesalius’ annotations.

But insuring the book presented a problem.

“It almost became too important and too valuable for it to be in a collection like mine,” said Vogrincic.

“So I had to find a place to keep it safe. I knew it was an important book and other people would want to see it, so I wanted to make it available to others, and at the same time protect it.”

In 2012, he lent it to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, until it went to Christie’s auction. It was purchased by the University of Louvain in Belgium, which Vesalius had attended.

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“This is really where that book does belong. It doesn’t belong in Canada, or in a private collection,” he said. “It really belongs back in Brussels because he’s such an important figure in their history.”

Selling the book gives Vogrincic a financial cushion in retirement, and will allow him to collect other rare books.

What would be at the top of his list?

“I would probably want to get another copy of the Fabrica.”

Copies come up for auction “every couple of years.”

There are two editions that Vesalius oversaw, the 1543 and 1555 editions, and it’s estimated that about 750 copies of each were printed, Vogrincic said. In terms of rare medical books, it’s not really that rare.

“There’s probably about 150 first edition books and 150 second edition books.”

The speculation is Vogrincic’s copy was annotated with changes intended for a third edition that was never printed.

Why is de Humani Corporis Fabrica so important? Because it revolutionized medicine.

“Prior to Vesalius the ancient Greeks were considered to be the authorities on medicine, people like Galen and Hippocrates,” Vogrincic said.

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“They were the final word on anything, you couldn’t question them. You just had to read what they said and that was the truth. Vesalius changed that. Vesalius did his own dissections in preparing this book, and saw that Galen was full of errors.

“He said, ‘You can’t believe these guys. You have to question authority. You have to question them, you can’t just take it for granted. We have to find out for ourselves what the truth is.’

“That’s the really revolutionary change of this book.”

The other lure is its beautiful woodcut illustrations, which were integrated with the text.

“The illustrations in this book were used for centuries after the book was printed, that’s how good the illustrations were,” said Vogrincic.

“Nobody knows who the artists were, but there’s talk that (the Italian painter) Titian might have done them, because Titian was in Venice at the time. That’s the quality of the illustrations.”

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An example of the beautiful illustrations in Andreas Vesalius’s landmark book on anatomy, de Humani Corporis Fabrica. Christie’s Images Limited sun
A portrait of Andreas Vesalius from his landmark book on anatomy, de Humani Corporis Fabrica. Christie’s Images Limited sun
Dr. Gerry Vogrincic said owning a million dollar book like his annotated copy of Andreas Vesalius’ de Humani Corporis Fabrica made it hard to keep it in his house because it was too important and valuable. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10103837A

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