Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier
Although Lavoisier began his career as a geologist, his greatest scientific achievements were in the field of chemistry. Most notably, it was Lavoisier who proposed the name “oxygen” for what had hitherto been described as “dephlogisticated air.” In addition to his experiments observing chemical reactions involving oxygen, Lavoisier took a keen interest in such diverse matters as agriculture and the poor conditions in prisons and hospitals throughout France. “The range of Lavoisier’s activity is hard for lesser talents and less rigidly disciplined personalities to comprehend,” (DSB). His time was divided between scientific experimentation, meetings of the Royal Academy of Science, the Gunpowder Administration, and the Ferme Générale, an agency that collected taxes and tariffs for the government. In fact, it was as an agent for the Ferme Générale that Lavoisier was able to accumulate great wealth and fund his experiments. However, at the time of our letter, the Ferme Générale had become a symbol of France’s inequitable financial system and it was abolished one month after our letter, in March 1791. Perhaps observing that this source of income was soon coming to an end, Lavoisier sought the outright purchase of “state properties” and benefit from their speculation as suggested in our letter. The Lepine farm is one of four farms Parisis purchased for Lavoisier in the canton of Villers-Cotterêts, which together totaled nearly 800 hectares. The revenue from Lavoisier’s vast real estate holdings in 1793 was roughly 121,637 livres ($4.5 million), (Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist, Poirier).
Not only did the French Revolution cut short Lavoisier’s scientific work by abolishing such institutions as the Academy of Sciences, but he also found himself criticized by Jean-Paul Marat (a scientist in his own right) and other Revolutionaries for his affiliation with and enrichment from the Ferme Générale. In the period during the French Revolution known as “The Terror,” Lavoisier and his colleagues from the Ferme Générale were arrested, imprisoned, accused of defrauding the state, and, on May 8, 1794, executed. “His death on the guillotine in his fifty-first year, with creative powers still undiminished, has marked him, with the obvious exceptions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as the outstanding martyr to the excesses of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution” (ibid.).
Written in a clear and precise hand on a folded sheet with the integral address leaf and partial red wax seal intact. A note, presumably in the hand of Parisis, is written vertically in the left margin of the first page, “Lettre du 7 Fev. 1791 qui me fixe l’Enchère a [Porter?] sur la ferme de Lepine.” (“Letter of 7 Feb. 1791 to [execute] the bid on the Lepine farm.”) With some light pencil notes on the address leaf; normal wear and in fine condition.
Our letter was sold by the renowned dealer Jacques Charavay in Paris on December 7, 1865. It then formed part of the notable collection assembled by French archeologist, numismatist and scholar Benjamin Fillon, described in Jacques’ son Etienne Charavay’s 1878 inventory of Fillon’s collection. It was sold as one of two Lavoisier letters at a Sotheby’s 1978 sale to renowned American dealer, Mary Benjamin, with the second letter last appearing at a Stargardt auction in 1998. Lavoisier letters are rare, particularly ones entirely in his hand.