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Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair and thesis fetch more than US$1m at auction

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The final price for an old red wheelchair exceeded expectations at a Christie's auction in London that ended on Thursday.

[NEW YORK] The final price for an old red wheelchair exceeded expectations at a Christie's auction in London that ended on Thursday.

A mystery buyer spent about US$390,000 on the wheelchair, a motorised model that had belonged to physicist and author Stephen Hawking, who died in March at 76. That is more than 15 times the pre-sale estimate made public by Christie's.

It was among 22 items on offer from Prof Hawking's estate in an online auction that began Oct 31. All of those were sold, and the total, about US$1.8 million, was seven times more than had been predicted.

"The results of this remarkable sale, with more than 400 registered bidders from 30 different countries, demonstrate the enormous admiration and affection with which Stephen Hawking was viewed around the world," according to a statement from Thomas Venning, head of books and manuscripts for Christie's, and James Hyslop, head of science and natural history.

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Altogether, the items auctioned, which also included possessions of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, were sold for more than US$2.3 million.

The red wheelchair was used by Prof Hawking during the late 1980s and early 90s; he stopped using it when he could no longer steer it with his hands. The physicist spent most of his life steadily losing control over his muscles because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

A bidder also spent more than US$760,000 — more than double the expectation — on Prof Hawking's signed 1965 PhD thesis, Properties of Expanding Universes, about the origins of time and space.

Proceeds from the wheelchair sale will go to benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association; proceeds from Prof Hawking's other items will go to his estate.

Those items included a black bomber jacket, the script from an episode of The Simpsons on which he appeared and a 1988 copy of his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time, marked with his thumbprint as a signature.

The 52 lots on offer at the auction, which was called "On the Shoulders of Giants", also included a book explaining Albert Einstein's understanding of relativity (sold for about US$11,400), a letter defending Darwin's ideas about evolution (about US$65,300) and a manuscript capturing Newton's fascination with alchemy (about US$130,000).

NYTIMES