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Eleventh-hour deal keeps scientific treasure in Britain

March 28, 2006 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Royal Society buys historic manuscript minutes before it was to go for auction.

Britain's Royal Society has won a last-ditch battle to regain possession of one of its most valuable treasures, a seventeenth-century manuscript handwritten by the physicist Robert Hooke, which the society claims was taken from its archives some 300 years ago.

The document, which contains Hooke's minutes of Royal Society meetings from 1661 to 1682, was discovered in a private house last year and was due to be sold at Bonhams auction house in London today. It was expected to fetch as much as £1.5 million (US$2.6 million).

With minutes to go before the lot was called, however, Bonhams chairman Robert Brooks announced that the Royal Society had closed a behind-the-scenes deal.

The Society paid about £1 million for the manuscript, it said in a press statement. It is unclear how it raised the funds; when the documents were discovered last year, Royal Society president Martin Rees said that the society could not meet the asking price.

To the chagrin of potential bidders, Brooks said: "A private treaty sale has been concluded with the Royal Society for the Hooke manuscript and so Lot 189 has been withdrawn from sale." A Bonhams spokesperson added: "This is highly unusual, but not unprecedented."

Staying home

The dramatic move means that the manuscript will now stay in Britain, after having attracted the attention of international potential buyers. "We had worldwide interest," the spokesperson said. Frustrated prospective bidders at the auction would not reveal on whose behalf they were prepared to bid.

Rees says they intend to provide digitized versions of the manuscript on their website as soon as possible, and will put the originals on display during their summer science exhibition between 3 and 6 July. Among its 520 pages are notes concerning Hooke's confirmation of the first sightings of microbes by Antoni van Leewenhoek, discussions with Isaac Newton about gravity, and smatterings of personal comments.

"Robert Hooke was a colossal figure in the founding of modern science, and these documents represent an irreplaceable record of his contribution. They provide an insight into one of the great minds of early modern science," says Rees.

The Royal Society had been criticized for trying to block the sale or export of the manuscript at the same time as trying to raise funds for its own bid. A Society spokesman told that they believed the document was important enough to justify seeking legal advice on how to temporarily keep it in the country had it been bought by an overseas bidder.

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