Alexander von Humboldt's scientific journals aren't under state protection and could be auctioned to a private owner. If that happens, the public may lose access to one of the world's most important research projects.
If you want to understand the world, you have to travel around and measure it. That's the approach that Alexander von Humboldt followed very meticulously. He climbed the more than 6,300-meter Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador and was nearly eaten alive by the insects he was collecting in the jungles of Guyana.
He recorded the position of the lakes and the temperature of the air in Mexico, Peru and Colombia. Despite his scientific approach, the romantically inclined Humboldt was also prone to pause in awe when he heard an evening concert of bird song in the jungle.
He came to South America in 1799 and when he returned home five years later, he had become a fan of the continent. The Venezuelan freedom fighter Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), who was disgusted with European colonization, called Humboldt the "true discoverer of the continent."
Humboldt painstakingly documented his discoveries and adventures, finding time to write down measurements and personal impressions in his diaries. In total, his journals comprised of 3,442 pages, mainly written in French, but also in German with occasional Latin entries. He also included sketches and pasted artifacts into the nine volumes, which make up much more than a travel journal.
For Eberhard Knobloch, director of the Alexander von Humboldt Research Project at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, they are "not only the most comprehensive, but also the most famous diaries that have ever been written by a world traveler."
The Chimborazo volcano is considered to be the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the Earth's center
Wrangling over a national treasure
There was much excitement, then, when it was made known that Humboldt's diaries might be sold - not to a museum, but in a private auction. If that happens, the fate of the documents will lie in the hands of the highest bidder.
After World War II, the diaries had been placed in the East Berlin State Library and made accessible to researchers. However, in 2005 they were returned to Humboldt's legal heirs, the von Heinz family. At the time, the family said they planned to make the diaries accessible to the public, so they were not placed on an official cultural heritage list.
Without such a listing, the von Heinz family is free to do what they like with the diaries - even to the point of taking them out of the country and selling them at auction.
At the moment, however, the family is still negotiating with the state-run Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is tasked with preserving historical items of cultural significance from what used to be Prussia. It also oversees 27 cultural institutions in Germany and is one of largest cultural organizations in the world.
Rumor has it that the von Heinz family is demanding a high price for diaries - sums as high as eight digits have been quoted. But the state budget is limited. Should the family and the state not come to an agreement, there is bound to be no shortage of interested buyers on the private market.
"Buyers may appear that are not necessarily collectors of hand-written documents," said Berlin-based auctioneer Wolfgang Mecklenburg, who specializes in documents that were handwritten by significant historical figures. "They'll say, 'I'll be happy to pay the asking price!' Especially for something from an icon like Alexander von Humboldt, who is practically a saint in South America."
The Humboldt legend
Humboldt's name is indeed especially well-known in South America, where he is not only remembered for his contributions to science but also for advocating against colonialism and slavery.
"The natives there were considered second-class citizens, while the Catholic missionaries acted like rulers and treated the natives like children," said Eberhard Knobloch. "[Humboldt] took a strong public position against slavery, because for him all people were equal, independent of their race."
Nevertheless, Humboldt's liberal ideas were not in accordance with the politics of the day. As a member of the Prussian nobility and the political elite, he was obliged to show loyalty to his king. At that time, it was Frederick William III who was ruling Prussia, and he was not a supporter of the equality notions propagated during the French Revolution just a few years earlier.
It was the Spanish throne that sponsored Humboldt's expedition with funding and unlimited travel freedom through its colonies. In return, they expected information about the natural resources in South America.
Ahead of his time
"He was aware of the danger that his finding could be used in a way that he didn't approve of. But he also felt indebted," Knobloch explained. "That was also the case with Thomas Jefferson, who was then president of the United States. When he gave him geographical information, then it always had a military aspect to it."
Despite these restrictions, Humboldt's own political viewpoints were unusually progressive and enlightened, considering the era he lived in and his social position, Knobloch said.
Humboldt was not only a sociologist but first and foremost an explorer and scientist. And armed with sextants, barometers and thermometers, he set out to measure the New World, just as astronomists had recently been doing with outer space.
Having been educated at university in the areas of mathematics, volcanology, paleontology, and climatology, Humboldt was able to process the measurements he collected in an interdisciplinary way.
"That is evident, for instance, in the plant geography he developed," Knobloch explained. "He said, 'It's not enough that I'm a geographer and am interested in the shape of mountains. I also have to see what the botany is like there.' And then he finds out that things are connected. In a particular area and at a particular altitude, only certain plants can be found."
After returning to Europe, Humboldt viewed his diaries as more of a life project than a completed work - a kind of quarry from which he would harvest ideas for many years thereafter.
Today, the data contained in the diaries is not only interesting for Humboldt researchers but also for climate researchers, for example, who can look up snow fall measurements and water temperatures from the turn of the 19th century.
To make this information more accessible, they have to be prepared and presented according to today's editorial methods, according to Knobloch. At the moment, only micro-film copies of the nine volumes are available. The Humboldt expert says that in order to properly prepare the work for research purposes, it's necessary to have the original.
Whether the original diaries will be made available to researchers will depend on result of negotiations between the von Heinz family and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.