The year 1922 was a busy one for Albert Einstein: He completed his first paper on unified field theory, went to Paris to help normalize French-German relations and joined an intellectuals committee at the League of Nations.
Shortly before heading to Asia for a lecture tour, he learned that he had won the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics. But rather than head to Stockholm for the award ceremony, he decided to keep his plans and continued to Japan.
When he arrived in Tokyo, thousands greeted him at the Imperial Palace to witness his meeting the emperor and empress, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein. Nearly 2,500 paid to see his first lecture in the city, which lasted almost four hours with translation.
“No living person deserves this sort of reception,” he told his wife, Elsa, amused at the throngs who waited outside his hotel balcony in hopes of catching a glimpse of him. “I’m afraid we’re swindlers. We’ll end up in prison yet.”
While staying at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, a courier came to the door to make a delivery. The courier either refused a tip or Einstein had no small change, but Einstein wanted to give the messenger something nonetheless.
So on a piece of hotel stationery, Einstein wrote in German his theory of happiness:
“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”
On a second sheet, he wrote another message: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
He told the bellhop to save the notes — they just might be valuable in the future. And indeed they were.
In an auction in Jerusalem on Tuesday, the note on happiness sold to an anonymous European bidder for $1.56 million. The second note fetched $240,000.
A spokesman for the auction house, Meni Chadad, told The New York Times that it had expected the notes would garner $5,000 to $8,000. When the sale was announced, he said, the room burst into applause.
“It was an all-time record for an auction of a document in Israel, and it was just wow, wow, wow,” Chadad said. “I think the value can be explained by the fact that the story behind the tip is so uplifting and inspiring, and because Einstein continues to be a global rock star long after his death.”
Don’t have a million dollars? Einstein’s papers are archived at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was a founder and member of the board.
More than 2,000 of his papers have been digitized for online perusal, including his handwritten theory of relativity, a diary of his 1930-31 trip to the U.S., and the manuscript for an article titled “E=mc 2 : The Most Urgent Problem of Our Time.”
There are also his notes from lectures he was giving on general relativity in Berlin and Zurich in 1918-19. In an entry from Nov. 9, 1918, the day that German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated the throne, Einstein wrote: “[Lecture] cancelled due to revolution.”
The seller of the Imperial Hotel notes is reportedly a grandson of the Japanese bellboy’s brother who lives in Germany.