Six photographs of Einstein. Estimate £500-800. This lot is offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

15 things you might not know about Albert Einstein

Letters, postcards and photographs from the personal archives of Einstein’s sister and brother-in-law shed new light on the extraordinary life and complex character of the 20th century’s most famous scientist

  • 1
  • At the age of 5, he was solemn and slow — but cute

The 5-year-old Einstein, Munich, [c.1884]. Mounted on stiff black card with gilt border, photographer’s name printed on lower margin, the verso printed with the photographers appointments to the royal Bavarian and imperial Russian courts, and his address at Carlstrasse 21; annotated in pencil at lower margin 31  Albert Einstein. 103 x 64 mm including mount . Estimate

The 5-year-old Einstein, Munich, [c.1884]. Mounted on stiff black card with gilt border, photographer’s name printed on lower margin, the verso printed with the photographer's appointments to the royal Bavarian and imperial Russian courts, and his address at Carlstrasse 21; annotated in pencil at lower margin '31 / Albert Einstein'. 103 x 64 mm including mount . Estimate: £4,000-6,000. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

Einstein’s younger sister Maja described him as a fat, rather solemn child, who was so slow in learning to talk that his parents almost gave up on him. The earliest known photograph of Einstein dates from his third year. This previously unknown image of Albert as a five-year-old shows rather an appealing face, albeit with the instantly recognisable drooping eyes and wide upper lip of the adult Einstein.

  • 2
  • He may have been a prodigy, but he didn't pass all of his exams

The 16-year-old prodigy, Aarau, 1895. Mounted on stiff card, photographers printed signature and details on lower margin and verso; gilt edges 104 x 64 mm including mount. Estimate                    £4,000-6,000. Offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

The 16-year-old prodigy, Aarau, 1895. Mounted on stiff card, photographer's printed signature and details on lower margin and verso; gilt edges 104 x 64 mm including mount. Estimate: £4,000-6,000. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

When he sat the entrance exam for the Zurich Polytechnic at the early age of 16, Einstein duly shone in the mathematics and physics papers. He failed the general paper, however, and was sent back to secondary school in the Swiss canton of Aarau for an additional year’s preparation. He sent this photograph home to his parents and sister in Milan, inscribed with a greeting from his new school.

  • 3
  • He once thought of taking over the family electrical engineering business

A trip to Venice with his father, Venice, 11 September 1900. In German, in gothic script, three lines in pencil below the photographic image of the Punta della Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute; the postcard is also inscribed and signed in pencil down the right margin by Einsteins father, Hermann; address in Hermann Einsteins hand to Pauline Einstein in Milan 89 x 140 mm. Estimate

A trip to Venice with his father, Venice, 11 September 1900. In German, in gothic script, three lines in pencil below the photographic image of the Punta della Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute; the postcard is also inscribed and signed in pencil down the right margin by Einstein's father, Hermann; address in Hermann Einstein's hand to Pauline Einstein in Milan 89 x 140 mm. Estimate: £2,500-3,500. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

In 1900 Einstein’s father, Hermann, was in failing health, and his electrical engineering business was struggling. For a brief period, the 21-year-old Albert seems to have contemplated taking over the family business. Given his famously absent-minded and impractical character, it is questionable whether he would have been suited to such a role. This postcard was sent home by Albert and Hermann Einstein in September 1900, when father and son took a trip to visit two company power plants near Venice.

  • 4
  • Einstein married his first cousin (who was also his second cousin)

Gravitation. Redshift of spectral lines..., Berlin, 12 February 1915. In German, two pages, 276 x 215 mm. Sold for $32,500, 6 Dec 2017, Online

'Gravitation. Redshift of spectral lines...', Berlin, 12 February 1915. In German, two pages, 276 x 215 mm. Sold for $32,500, 6 Dec 2017, Online

Einstein’s second wife, Elsa, was not only his first cousin on his mother’s side, but also his second cousin on his father’s side (Charles Darwin also married a first cousin). This letter to his friend Michele Besso contains an early reference to their ‘sweet relationship’, which he curiously describes as ‘durable’ because he has sworn not  to marry her.

  • 5
  • He admitted to being a terrible husband

Einstein, Albert (1879-1955). Autograph letter signed (‘A. Einstein’) to Michele Besso’s son, Vero, and sister, Bice Rusconi (‘Lieber Vero und liebe Frau Bice’), Princeton, 21 March 1955. In German, one page, 279 x 216 mm.  Envelope Provenance by descent from the  recipients. Sold for £50,000 on 12 July 2017 at Christie’s in London

Einstein, Albert (1879-1955). Autograph letter signed (‘A. Einstein’) to Michele Besso’s son, Vero, and sister, Bice Rusconi (‘Lieber Vero und liebe Frau Bice’), Princeton, 21 March 1955. In German, one page, 279 x 216 mm.  Envelope Provenance: by descent from the recipients. Sold for £50,000 on 12 July 2017 at Christie’s in London

In this letter written at the end of his life, Einstein referred to marriage as ‘an undertaking at which I twice rather shamefully failed’. Certainly, his first marriage, to a fellow physics student, Mileva Maric, could not be called a success: it foundered when Mileva refused to move with him to Berlin in 1914 after discovering his affair with his cousin Elsa. He once compared the saga of their divorce to the First World War.

His second marriage does not seem to have been a triumph either. He occasionally refers to Elsa after their marriage as ‘wife no.2’ (apparently another joke), and his extra-marital relationships included affairs with his secretary, with the owner of a Viennese department store and (in later life) with a Russian spy. Einstein once wryly categorised marriage as ‘a considerable test of patience’.

  • 6
  • An old friend of his assassinated the Austrian prime minister

Quantum theory, and a political assassin, Berlin, 29 April 1917. In German, 2½ pages, 207 x 138 mm. Sold for $11,875, 6 Dec 2017, Online

Quantum theory, and a political assassin, Berlin, 29 April 1917. In German, 2½ pages, 207 x 138 mm. Sold for $11,875, 6 Dec 2017, Online

Friedrich Adler was a fellow physicist in Zurich, and was to some degree responsible for Einstein getting his first academic position in 1909. By 1916, however, Adler's interests had switched to radical politics, and in December that year he was driven to assassinate the Austrian minister-president, Karl von Stürgkh.

In this letter to Michele Besso, he discusses whether a petition should be organised to support Adler.


  • 7
  • Einstein was a creative tax-dodger

The end of a lovely summer, Berlin, 2 September 1922. One page, 140 x 90 mm; Elsa Einstein has added a message on the blank half of the address page. Estimate                    £1,500-2,000. Offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

The end of a lovely summer, Berlin, 2 September 1922. One page, 140 x 90 mm; Elsa Einstein has added a message on the blank half of the address page. Estimate: £1,500-2,000. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

Einstein had financial difficulties in the years immediately after the First World War, and struggled with the maintenance payments for his first wife and children in Switzerland. His solution came in the form of investments in a Swiss stock fund, which he kept secret from the German authorities in order to avoid rules on tax and foreign income.

His letters to his brother-in-law, Paul Winteler, who managed the funds, sometimes use cryptic language to discuss financial arrangements: here he asks him to send ‘10 cases of plums’ to two addresses in Switzerland.

  • 8
  • Fame was anathema to him

My decrepit ego, Berlin, 18 November 1929. In German, one page, 274 x 219 mm, on a page from a perforated notepad. Estimate                    £1,500-2,200. Offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

'My decrepit ego', Berlin, 18 November 1929. In German, one page, 274 x 219 mm, on a page from a perforated notepad. Estimate: £1,500-2,200. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

Einstein became world-famous almost overnight in November 1919, after the announcement of the successful experimental confirmation of the theory of general relativity. It was an experience he loathed, referring to his ‘exaggerated glorification’ as a ‘plague’ and a ‘heavy load’.

In this missive to his sister Maja, written in November 1929, he describes receiving an honorary doctorate in Paris as ‘the greatest stress that my decrepit ego could still endure’.

  • 9
  • He claimed his laziness in writing letters was hereditary

The collective is a nasty animal, Berlin, 2 March 1930. In German, 1¾ pages, 285 x 223 mm; autograph note signed by Elsa Einstein added below her husbands signature. Estimate                    £3,000-5,000. Offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

'The collective is a nasty animal', Berlin, 2 March 1930. In German, 1¾ pages, 285 x 223 mm; autograph note signed by Elsa Einstein added below her husband's signature. Estimate: £3,000-5,000. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

Einstein’s letters to his family and close friends almost always apologise for his not writing more often — at one point his replies became so erratic that his friend Michele Besso started wondering if his own letters were getting lost in the post.

Among a variety of imaginative excuses, he blames his genetic inheritance: ‘You do know that our father also wrote no private letters, not even to his sister?’

  • 10
  • The art of cooking eluded him

His incompetence at housework, Berlin, 10 August 1930. In German,⅔ page, 279 x 215 mm, on graph paper. Estimate                    £1,500-2,200. Offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

His incompetence at housework, Berlin, 10 August 1930. In German,⅔ page, 279 x 215 mm, on graph paper. Estimate: £1,500-2,200. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

Einstein loved to spend time on his own in his country retreat outside Berlin, but his talents did not extend to housework. In this letter to his brother-in-law, Paul Winteler, he admits that he has tried his hand in the kitchen, ‘but the cooking didn’t seem to work out quite right’.

  • 11
  • He could make a joke about anything – even Hitler

The only unshakeable things are the stars and mathematics, England, September 1933. In German, 1¼ pages, 177 x 139 mm. Estimate                    £6,000-9,000. Offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

'The only unshakeable things are the stars and mathematics', England, September 1933. In German, 1¼ pages, 177 x 139 mm. Estimate: £6,000-9,000. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

As a prominent public opponent of the nascent Nazi regime, Einstein was swiftly declared a public enemy in Hitler’s Germany — he lost his home, his job and his savings, and a bounty was placed on his head.

Under the circumstances, his ability to make a joke about the situation is almost heroic. In this letter to Maja, written from England in 1933 on the eve of his departure to the United States, he comments that among the things he has had to leave behind in Germany are his sailing boat and his girlfriends: ‘H. [i.e. Hitler] has only confiscated the former, which is insulting for the latter’.

  • 12
  • He wasn’t at all impressed by the United States on his first two visits…

‘Playing the part of the good Lord or his assistant’, Pasadena, 7 February 1931. In German, one page, 279 x 215 mm, on headed paper Envelope. Estimate £2,500-3,500. This lot is offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

‘Playing the part of the good Lord or his assistant’, Pasadena, 7 February 1931. In German, one page, 279 x 215 mm, on headed paper Envelope. Estimate: £2,500-3,500. This lot is offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

Einstein didn’t hate everything about America when he first visited it, but it clearly wasn’t love at first sight. This 1931 letter to Maja written on California Institute of Technology paper, complains of the ‘unbelievably corrupt’ politics, the lack of manners and the disparities in wealth. Characteristically, he also disliked the fact that he was treated as a celebrity, which he refers to as having to ‘play the part of the good Lord or his assistant’.

Elsewhere he referred to the USA as a country where ‘a new garter has more importance than a novel philosophical theory’.

  • 13
  • … but grew to love America’s wide-open spaces

His favourite books Don Quixote and the Bible, Berlin, 15 March 1926. In German, 1¼ pages, 278 x 219 mm. Estimate                    £2,500-3,500. Offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

His favourite books: Don Quixote and the Bible, Berlin, 15 March 1926. In German, 1¼ pages, 278 x 219 mm. Estimate: £2,500-3,500. Offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

In his new life after he moved to America in 1933, Einstein soon settled into a pattern of summering along the East Coast, where he could indulge his passion for sailing. His letters from these years are full of his appreciation for the wild natural scenery of Connecticut and Long Island, and of the sparsity of population which contrasted strongly with his memories of home: ‘In overpopulated Europe, one can hardly imagine nature in such a wild and unspoilt form’.

  • 14
  • His favourite books were Don Quixote and the Bible

His favourite books Don Quixote and the Bible, Berlin, 15 March 1926. In German, 1¼ pages, 278 x 219 mm. Estimate £2,500-3,500. This lot is offered in Einstein and Family Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

His favourite books: Don Quixote and the Bible, Berlin, 15 March 1926. In German, 1¼ pages, 278 x 219 mm. Estimate: £2,500-3,500. This lot is offered in Einstein and Family: Letters and Portraits, 2-9 May 2018, Online

Einstein loved reading — anything from the 18th-century novels of Laurence Sterne to Thomas Mann, from Herodotus and Aristotle to Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. His favourite book, however, was always Don Quixote — alongside the Bible.

  • 15
  • For an atheist, Einstein talked a lot about God

God does not play dice, Princeton, 30 November 1949. Including a small diagram of a cube In German, one page, 278 x 215 mm. Sold for $137,500 on 13 Jul 2017, Online

God does not play dice, Princeton, 30 November 1949. Including a small diagram of a cube In German, one page, 278 x 215 mm. Sold for $137,500 on 13 Jul 2017, Online

After a period of intense religious belief as a child, Einstein repudiated the notion of a Judaeo-Christian deity, but the idea of a 'God' appears again and again in his letters. One of his most famous sayings is 'God does not play dice', by which he meant that the basic principles governing the universe could not be based on random operations.

'God' for Einstein seems to represent his search for the elusive fundamental truth that lies behind everything — 'the eternal riddle-maker', as he once put it, who 'makes jokes' for us to unravel.