A while back, in late july 2014, as I was casually browsing through the “Lettres, vieux papiers” section of ebay.fr (as I do now and then) I decided, with no particular hope, to search for ‘mathématique’. To my surprise, two items did pop up, from the same seller :
I clicked on the first one and the close-up pictures looked a bit strange (I feared this maybe was a facsimile of the original document), but the other one looked authentic, especially with the added editorial comments :
So I then looked at the other items of that seller and my jaw dropped :
It was now clear that these were original documents that had belonged to Charles Hermite and his son-in-law Émile Picard! Without further ado I placed my bids on most of them (the lot of letters was the only one with a buy-now option –at thrice the starting bid– but, better safe than lose the auction, so I went for buy-now). My thinking about the rest was : “this will obviously go up quite a bit, which one do I focus on ?”
Very surprisingly, I ended up being the sole bidder on all but one item (the one with the gold-plated cover). A possible explanation is that these were quick 3-days auctions in mid-week in the middle of summer (as I realized later, some of the lots had even been put up twice for auction and didn’t sell, so this has been a very lucky outcome indeed).
The manuscript with the editorial note, which was much more expensive at 99€, is the only one I didn’t bid on, believing at the time that with probably many more such papers to come I had to optimize my money and wait for a ‘better’ one (since Picard edited the Collected Works of Hermite, and since a quick check showed this particular paper didn’t make it in there, I thought it might be one of lesser significance). Somebody else did buy it, as I recall. Luckily, the gold-plated item I got through second offer: I had bid as much as I could and lost, but the seller only accepted french cheques while the auction winner was abroad and not willing to use that payment method. Luck, again.
In the other posts of this series are described these items in more detail. But it didn’t end there. Indeed, the seller had told me they came from a garage sale, but couldn’t remember where. Some other documents purchased made it clear that these came from the family of a son of Jean Villey-Desmeserets, a physicist who had married one of Picard’s daughters. I was now convinced that more items were to be found, at least some more Hermite manuscripts.
Back from holidays a little later, I realised I had indeed just missed further Hermite documents, from another seller (who didn’t say where they came from, either) :
It’s rather unfortunate : Hermite’s own Napoleon III-era portfolio, containing a few papers (an Honoris Causa diploma from the University of Dublin, a letter from Schwartz regarding the Gold Medal Hermite had obtained from the Kaiser in 1893, and some other letters regarding medals and honors), here are a few screenshots :
At the beginning of september, with little progress made on the location of the original garage sale, I noticed a third ebay seller just putting up some books bearing handwritten dedications to Picard. After contacting her, I learned she had obtained at an auction house two cardboard boxes : one with those books and another with 100+ mathematical fascicules and books of Picard. She kindly agreed for a buy-now sale at her asking price of the mathematical ones :
My aim obviously being one of preservation, and sensing I wouldn’t be able to obtain much more (since I did manage to contact a grand-daughter of Jean Villey-Desmeserets but got no further information), I finally contacted the Archives of the Académie des Sciences where they are now held (see the other posts for full sets of pictures). In fact, as is explained next, some further twists occured before I gave the lot to the Archives.
Next post : Hermite’s 1892 jubilee documents.