Einstein Came to Regret Letter That Could Now Fetch $4M

Christie's plans to auction 1939 note urging FDR to invest in atomic energy research
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 25, 2024 12:06 PM CDT
Einstein Came to Regret Letter That Could Now Fetch $4M
Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard reenact the signing of their 1939 letter to President Roosevelt in 1946.   (Wikimedia Commons/Life Magazine)

A signed copy of the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to fund the atomic energy research that would lead to the atomic bomb, will soon hit the auction block and set a new record if it sells, the Wall Street Journal reports. In September, Christie's plans to auction off the 1939 letter with a starting bid of at least $4 million, per the outlet. That's $1.2 million more than the record for any Einstein letter, set in 2018. According to the Journal, this is "one of the most pivotal letters Albert Einstein ever wrote." But as the BBC notes, Einstein didn't actually write the letter warning Nazis could create "extremely powerful bombs of a new type"—at least not alone.

On the eve of war, about six months after the discovery of nuclear fission, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and other scientists crafted the letter urging Roosevelt to see uranium's potential as "a new and important source of energy," the BBC reports. The letter dated Aug. 2, 1939, was "signed by Einstein because his status as one of the greatest scientific figures of all time made it more likely to get the president's attention." Fearing German advances, the president responded by forming an advisory committee on uranium. Within months, the committee warned uranium "would provide a possible source of bombs with a destructiveness vastly greater than anything now known." A government atomic energy program followed soon after, something Einstein would come to regret.

The original letter found its way to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in New York, while a slightly shorter version, also signed by Einstein, fell into private hands. It was kept by Szilard until his death, then purchased by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for $2.1 million in 2002. Allen's estate, which previously sold off the billionaire's art collection, is now looking to rid itself of the letter that became "the first 20th-century historical document to top $1 million," per the Journal. The purported value, between $4 million and $6 million, is related to its historical ties to two American icons. Also up for grabs in the auction: early computers and a spacesuit used by Ed White, the first US astronaut to perform a spacewalk. (More auction stories.)

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