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Rare medieval accountancy book expected to sell for $1.5m

Accountancy

Rare medieval accountancy book expected to sell for $1.5m

Christie’s to auction 15th century work that set out the principles of double-entry bookkeeping

The first depiction of counting on fingers, in.Luca Pacioli's book © Anna Gordon/FT

A rare copy of a 15th-century printed book that set down the principles of modern accounting and double-entry bookkeeping is to go up for sale with an estimated value of up to $1.5m.

Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan friar, mathematics professor and friend of Leonardo da Vinci, published his Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita in 1494, just 40 years after Gutenberg’s innovations in moveable type launched the printing revolution.

Due to go on view on February 21 at Christie’s London showrooms, the Summa de Arithmetica is a compendium of everything known at the time about mathematics, but also a practical, how-to guide to succeeding in business.

At the time of its publication, Italy’s thriving city states were home to family businesses with international networks of trade, which required increasingly robust methods of management and financial control. Double-entry bookkeeping had been in use in Italy for at least a century, but Pacioli is credited with laying down the principles underlying it in the Summa, influencing the teaching of finance for generations of accountants up to the modern era.

A portrait of Franciscan friar and mathematics professor Luca Pacioli © Pictures Now/Alamy

The book also explored methods of purchase, credit, cash and exchange in an era of multiple currencies and complex cross-border taxes.

“This really was a textbook for merchants and businessmen,” said Margaret Ford, international head of books at Christie’s, which is showing the book in London, Hong Kong and San Francisco ahead of its sale in New York on June 12.

Christie’s declined to reveal the identity of the seller but said it was a European private collector. Only two first edition copies of Pacioli’s famous work have come to auction in the past three decades, going under the hammer at Sotheby’s for £470,000 and £135,000 in 2005 and 2002 respectively.

Symbols representing plus and minus in Luca Pacioli's book © Anna Gordon/FT

A humanist scholar, Pacioli believed mathematics could be usefully applied to all spheres of human endeavour, including art and architecture. Among his close acquaintances were the artist Piero della Francesca and architect Leon Battista Alberti. Three years after his book was published in Venice, he went to Milan under the patronage of Duke Ludovico Sforza, where he shared a home with Leonardo da Vinci, teaching him mathematics and collaborating on other work.

The Summa also contains a practical guide to communicating large numbers by means of complex hand signals. This “digital” system allowed numbers from 1 to 10,000 to be silently shown, perhaps to overcome the hubbub of open outcry trading on a market floor.

The book will be on view in London between February 21 and 27.

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