A first-edition copy of Luca Pacioli’s famous accounting text sold for $1,215,000 at auction on Wednesday in New York. The book, which is considered to be the first published explanation of double-entry bookkeeping, was up for bids at Christie’s at Rockefeller Center with an estimate of $1 million–$1.5 million.
The 616-page book — Summa de Arithmetica — by Italian Franciscan monk Luca Pacioli was published more than 500 years ago, in 1494.
Margaret Ford, international head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s, said a current “census” of 15th-century books lists 162 first-edition copies of Summa de Arithmetica within institutions globally, with only a “handful” additionally in private hands.
The original print run for Pacioli’s book is not known but is estimated to be between 500 and 1,500. A second edition was printed in 1523 after his death in 1517.
Pacioli, who was interested in art, architecture, business, and astronomy, as well as maths, at one time shared a flat and worked with Leonardo da Vinci; they collaborated on a book, Divine Proportion.
Summa de Arithmetica starts by looking at basic arithmetic and progresses to algebra in the eighth chapter. The ninth chapter is on business and introduces, with examples, double-entry bookkeeping. The final chapter — the tenth — is on geometry and trigonometry.
Ford said this is the first written account of double-entry bookkeeping but is also about “how to succeed in business”. The book, she said, explains how to barter, bills of exchange, how credit works, international sales representatives, and accounting for expenses and a float.
She added: “It’s printed on paper. Fifteenth-century paper would have been all-natural, rag-based paper. … One of the remarkable things about this copy is how beautiful it is. It actually has its original vellum wrapper. Parchment [vellum] is a relatively sensitive material, so the fact that it has survived in such pristine condition is remarkable.”
According to Ford, the book has been kept in “stable ownership” and has not often changed hands. It had come to Christie’s directly from a collector, someone the auction house has worked with for a number of years.
Leading up to the sale in New York, the book had also been on display in Hong Kong, San Francisco, and London, where the sale was originally launched at the end of February.
More information about Summa de Arithmetica is at Christie’s website.
─ Oliver Rowe (Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine senior editor.