The auction held Friday in an upstairs room at Christie's in New York City didn't garner as much attention as the mainfloor display of Elizabeth Taylor's jewelry, some of which was sold by the auction house recently. But for science history buffs, the manuscripts, letters and scientific papers up for sale held more allure than diamonds and rubies. The auction, entitled "The History of Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity: The Harvey Plotnick Library" included works by heavyweight physicists such as Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Henri Becquerel, Wolfgang Pauli, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

The centerpiece of the collection was the Einstein-Besso Working Manuscript (see image), the last great Einstein manuscript owned privately, and an early attempt to prove the theory of relativity. An unidentified buyer purchased it over the phone at a price of $500,000. Its sale, along with that of a Marie Curie manuscript that went for more than four times the presale estimate, was a highlight of the morning session, according to auctioneer Francis Wahlgren. The manuscript contains 26 pages written by Einstein, 25 from his friend and collaborator Michele Besso and three pages containing entries by both. This was Christie's second sale of important Einstein memorabilia this year. In March, they sold an unmailed draft of a letter from the physicist to Franklin Roosevelt on the potential of nuclear weapons and war for nearly $2.1 million.

The auction began with six and a half lines of text in the handwriting of Isaac Newton that fetched $75,000. Chatter among the Christie's employees working the phones for long-distance buyers picked up when works by Marie and Pierre Curie came on the block. Bidding became increasingly spirited for the majority of the Einstein offerings, as buyers in the room, like science book dealer Jeremy Norman, spent thousands of dollars with barely a nod of the head. Plotnick was present for the sale of the collection that took him more than 20 years to accumulate. Finding a first edition of a Heinrich Hertz book--signed by Lord Kelvin--piqued his interest in amassing science souvenirs, but he decided a few years ago to focus on other interests. The book was passed on to a new science enthusiast for $1,400.