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Thomas Venning: 5 minutes with Einstein’s leather jacket

A specialist from our books department introduces a ‘pungent’ leather jacket worn by one of the greatest scientists in history — sold for £110,500 in London

‘This is an incredibly worn, rather pungent leather jacket, which belonged to Albert Einstein,’ says specialist Thomas Venning, introducing an item of clothing that, for the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, became an unlikely staple — and sold for £110,500 in the Christie’s Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale on 13 July 2016.

‘The jacket first appears in a number of photographs of Einstein, taken at the height of his fame in the mid-1930s,’ Venning continues. A shot from 1935 shows the scientist wearing it upon his arrival for a holiday in the Bahamas — ‘improbably paired,’ adds Venning, ‘with a rather natty wing collar’. 

Lotte Jacobi, Albert Einstein in the leather jacket © 1938 The University of New Hampshire. Portrait of Albert Einstein courtesy of the University of New Hampshire
Lotte Jacobi, Albert Einstein in the leather jacket © 1938 The University of New Hampshire. Portrait of Albert Einstein courtesy of the University of New Hampshire

These early images were taken shortly after Einstein’s application for permanent residency in the US, having fled Nazi rule in his native Germany in 1933. ‘This jacket seems to capture Einstein’s mood as he embarks on a new life in the US. It’s made by Levi Strauss, and feels particularly American.’

Over several years, the jacket aged visibly. ‘Einstein wore it all the time — a fact mentioned in the memoirs of fellow scientist Leopold Infeld, who worked with him at Princeton. Infeld explained that Einstein tried to keep material restrictions to a minimum. Long hair reduced the need for a barber and, he wrote, “one leather jacket solved the coat problem for years.”’

Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) brown leather ‘Cossack’ jacket by Levi, Strauss & Co., circa 1935. Sold for £110,500 in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale on 13 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) brown leather ‘Cossack’ jacket by Levi, Strauss & Co., circa 1935. Sold for £110,500 in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale on 13 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Indeed, Einstein wore the jacket so often that, decades later, it retains his scent. ‘Einstein was an incessant pipe-smoker and, astonishingly, 60 years after his death, his jacket still smells of smoke,’ comments Venning, who adds that the piece has been an ‘electrifying’ temporary addition to Christie’s books department.

Passed on directly from Albert Einstein to the present owner, the jacket was offered alongside Einstein’s pocket watch, and building blocks from his childhood. ‘We know that Einstein played with this sort of toy, which was a forerunner of lego, and it’s wonderful to think of the young scientist using them as a child — already figuring things out,’ says Venning.

Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) Swiss silver open-face pocket watch, circa 1900. Sold for £266,500 in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale on 13 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) Swiss silver open-face pocket watch, circa 1900. Sold for £266,500 in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale on 13 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Not unlike the jacket, Einstein’s watch is humble in style, although it evokes a very different period in his life. ‘It dates to around 1900, when Einstein was still a total unknown,’ says Venning. A recent graduate, the 21-year-old had just published his first paper — a theory on intermolecular forces that he would later described as ‘worthless’.

‘Einstein carried this watch with him while working as a patent clerk in Switzerland, before he came up with one of the great ideas to change the world.’ It is, Venning concludes, an ‘incredibly emblematic’ object, from a physicist whose work with time would eventually lead to the ground-breaking Theory of Relativity.

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