“You have to realize that Einstein was going through a divorce at the time,” Marsha Malinowski explained to a well-dressed handful at Sotheby’s private exhibition of new acquisitions at its gallery on West Huron. “The editor of the journal repeatedly tried to get him to finish the draft, but Einstein politely declined. This is the longest unpublished manuscript by Einstein known to exist, and the earliest known draft of his theory of special relativity. I think it is one of the most important documents we have ever handled.”

“Unpublished?” someone echoed in disbelief.

“Never published, never photographed, never copied,” she said proudly. “It’s probably been handled by only a dozen people.”

A woman stepped up to the three-tiered glass cabinet where the 72 pages of words and equations were displayed. “He had really nice handwriting,” she observed. “I’m really impressed.”

The manuscript will be auctioned in New York on December 11, and Malinowski, Sotheby’s vice president of manuscripts, was shepherding it under heavy security to various cities, allowing those lucky enough to get an invitation a chance to gaze at the yellowing pages before they’re sold to the highest bidder. Asked how much the manuscript would go for, she replied matter-of-factly, “It is appraised at four to six million.”

Most of the people at the exhibition were down the hall, standing shoulder to shoulder, talking against a background of Jasper Johns and Edward Hopper paintings. “Do you know how tedious it must be to paint all those little dots?” said a woman staring down a Lichtenstein. Waiters glided around silently like fish, avoiding eye contact, delivering trays of miniature bruschetta. Guards in black suits sipped from glasses of water.

“Remarkable!” said a man, looking over his glasses at the manuscript in the case.

“What is?” asked his wife.

“I was commenting on his neatness.”

“Yes, dear,” she said dismissively, blowing at her asymmetric haircut. “But how’s his theory?”

“I don’t think I’m qualified to judge,” he said, smiling.

A few more people gathered near the case, prompting Malinowski to repeat her speech: Einstein began the draft in 1912, when it was commissioned by Erich Marx of the University of Leipzig for a journal. The first 17 lines were written in pencil, and the next 46 pages in brown ink, attesting to the poor state of the young professor’s finances. The last 26 pages, composed on Swiss watermarked paper with high-quality black ink, mark his move to a tenured position at the Federal Polytechnic Academy in Zurich. Distracted by the war, he never completed the draft. By 1919 he’d completed his larger theory of general relativity, which predicted that light from a distant star would be bent by a massive object like the sun. During a solar eclipse that November the bending of light was observed, and Einstein gained worldwide acclaim. That same year he divorced his wife and married the daughter of his father’s cousin. In 1921 he received the Nobel Prize. Marx wrote to him in 1922, asking that he finish the draft so that it could be published, but Einstein declined, saying the material was old and he didn’t have time to update it. Marx honored Einstein’s wishes, and kept the document in his vault. These pages, Malinowski seemed to be saying, were the Dead Sea scrolls of physics, an early declaration of independence from the laws of Newton.

“I love all those corrections!” chirped a woman who turned out to be an ophthalmologist. “Look, first he had L = mc2, then he crossed it out and switched to E! And look, he has the equation numbered ’27a’–but then he realizes he already has ’27a’, so he crossed that out and writes ’28’!”

The pages themselves were large–9 inches wide and 14 long. The first page sat alone on the top shelf, the others in artistic piles below. Sentences, all in German, and sometimes whole paragraphs had been crossed out with neat lines and other words and numbers written above and below. For the equations he used a notation (Minkowski’s tensor calculus) that Sotheby’s maintains he hadn’t used before, and in places he put variables in the wrong order and had to rewrite them. It’s as much a testament to the human tendency to err as it is to transcendental brilliance. “If you are out to describe the truth,” Einstein once said, “leave elegance to the tailor.”

“His voice is very humble in the document–he always speaks of we, the scientific community,” Malinowski said. “He was always revising and streamlining it, trying to make it accessible for people outside his elite group of theorists.” She was now on her third iteration of the pitch. “Marx did not publish the draft. It sat in his vault and was passed down in his family–I think without people really knowing what it was–for years. In 1986 it was sold through Sotheby’s to a private collector, who has now put it up for sale again. Einstein threw out most of his drafts, so we are very fortunate to have this one. It gives us real insight into his thought processes.”

Scientific archives are commodities these days. Bill Gates took home Leonardo’s diaries for a record $30.8 million, and Christie’s recently sold a piece of Charles Babbage’s 1879 calculating machine for $282,000, more than three times the appraised value. Babbage’s machine, a relic of the good old days when computers had gears, was bought by an Australian science museum, where it will be displayed for the public. Einstein’s draft belongs with the rest of his documents in the Einstein archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but it’s likely to go on being traded from private owner to private owner.

Einstein’s brilliant thought process probably isn’t particularly apparent in this document, as beautiful and novel as it is: it may be one of his first attempts to lay out relativity and its consequences, but it surely isn’t the best or clearest. His brilliance lay in his ideas, not in his early mistakes or drafts.

At the end of the 19th century physics seemed ready for downsizing–there didn’t seem much left to do. French physicist Jules-Henri Poincare had listed the few outstanding problems in physics. One was that Mercury’s orbit was a bit off predictions; another was that the thermal radiation spectrum, blackbody radiation, wasn’t understood. These turned out to be not the last strings that would tie classical physics up in a neat bundle but the dangling threads that started its unraveling. Einstein’s theory of relativity solved the Mercury question, and his other work, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, was instrumental in the formation of quantum theory, which solved the blackbody quandary.

The idea that underlies this draft was revolutionary: the speed of light remains the same, 186,000 miles per second, no matter how fast you’re moving relative to it. So if you drive your car at 55 miles per hour and turn the lights on, the light does not travel at 55 miles per hour more than the speed of light. The London Times called that “an affront to common sense,” and it was. Einstein said, “God is subtle, but he is not malicious.”

Things only got worse for common sense. Relativity also meant that time passed slower for the woman driving her car than the guy waiting by the side of the road for the bus. It’s because we plod along at mere miles per hour that we don’t notice; scientists have amused themselves by flying a clock around the earth and noting that it comes back one-millionth of a second slow.

“Who do you think will buy it?” asked the ophthalmologist. “Bill Gates?”

“I think Gates would definitely be interested,” Malinowski said.

“Maybe he’ll put it on the Internet,” said the ophthalmologist hopefully.

“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” said Malinowski, and laughed.

Einstein may have the last laugh if Gates does buy the draft. Somewhere buried in the Bettmann Archive, which Gates just bought, is the famous photo of the physicist, with bushy eyebrows and unkempt hair, sticking his tongue out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Sotheby’s.