The only surviving letter from Albert Einstein to his father, estimated to sell for 2,500-3,500. Photograph: Yves Gerard/Christie’s Images Ltd 2018
Whats remarkable about them stems from the fact that he had this incredibly close relationship with his sister. Its quite clear when hes writing to her, theres no role-playing at all, said Thomas Venning at Christies, which will auction the letters at the start of May. He was very conscious of what was expected of him after he became famous, and you dont get any of that in letters to his sister. He says some things that Ive never seen him say anywhere else, and Ive catalogued many hundreds of his letters.
In 1924, nine years after he completed the general theory of relativity in 1915, Einstein would write to Maja that scientifically I havent achieved much recently the brain gradually goes off with age, although thats not so unpleasant. It also means that youre not so answerable for your later years. Ten years later, he would write to her: I am happy in my work, even if in this and in other matters I am starting to feel that the brilliance of younger years is past.
Venning said he had not seen Einstein admit this anywhere else. Its not him playing a role, you can see that thought going through his head. Which is true if Einstein had died in 1916, his fundamental legacy would have been intact. He carried on working for another 40 years without making any other great breakthroughs. So its just an extraordinary moment which we get because of how close their relationship was. He didnt have to reassure her, he said.
Tackling topics from his hobbies of sailing and playing the violin, to his difficult relationship with his first wife, the letters are unpublished snapshots of Einstein, his private face, according to Venning. In one from 1935, Einstein makes a rare acknowledgement of his achievements, writing to Maja: In our main avenues of research in physics we are in a situation of groping in the dark, where each is completely sceptical about what another is pursuing with the highest hopes. One is in a constant state of tension until the end. At least I have the comfort that my main achievements have become part of the foundations of our science.
It sounds unusually big-headed for Einstein he was an incredibly low-key, humble person, always careful not to say anything that sounded too proud. But I think he felt he could say something to Maja, said Venning.
In 1923, in a letter that Christies has valued between 6,000 and 9,000, Einstein writes to Maja of his international fame, telling his sister and her husband that I am becoming very much loved and even more envied; theres nothing to be done about it.
Hes not rejoicing in it, hes just sort of accepting it. Einstein was the first scientist to be a world celebrity. Before that it just didnt really happen to scientists, so he was in this unique position, said Venning.
I am becoming very much loved and even more envied; theres nothing to be done about it … Einstein to Maja and Paul Winteler, 15 April 1923. Photograph: Christie’s Images 2018 Ltd
The shadow cast by the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and the strength Einstein drew from his work, is starkly depicted in a letter written to his sister in September 1933. Earlier that year, Einstein had renounced his German citizenship in Antwerp, fearing for his life after the Nazis branded relativity Jewish science and publicly denounced him. He took up a role at Princeton University in New Jersey in October; his sister would follow him in 1939.
What will happen if we come back from Princeton next year? Will we even be able to? What will life be like
there? The only unshakeable things are the stars and mathematics, he wrote.
This is him facing up to the fact his whole life has changed. Hes going to a country he doesnt really know. And so his whole world is falling to pieces, and he says this wonderful line, said Venning.
Christies will put the letters on view to the public from 18 to 20 April, and auction the collection online from 2 to 9 May.