We generally pick up books pretty cheaply but you need some serious dollars if you’re going to invest in the world’s most expensive books. Possibly the most we would ever shell out for would be for a signed first edition, but some really huge prices have been paid for the world’s most expensive books, some written by illustrious authors.
1. Codex Leicester ($30,800,000)
Topping the list of the world's most expensive books in the world is da Vinci’s Codex Leicester. The sale, which took place in New York City in 1994, was of the original, sole copy of da Vinci’s personal notebook. Its current owner is Bill Gates, who has digitized manuscript pages and loans it out to museums around the world for display.
2. Magna Carta ($21,000,000)
The official copy of the Magna Carta was sold by Sotheby’s in London in 2007, placing it as the second most expensive book to have ever been sold. The copy dates from 1215, and was purchased by a wealthy American businessman who wanted the copy to remain in the US National Archives on display. There are just 17 copies of the Magna Carta, which was the first ever attempt by an English King to impose limits on monarchical power and determine the rights of his citizens, left in the world. This copy is the last remaining in private ownership.
3. St Cuthbert Gospel ($14,300,000)
This pocket gospel is the earliest surviving Western bookbinding in the world, produced in the 600s. It contains the Gospel of St John written in Latin, and has very few embellishments due to its tiny size. In fact the book is so small that is remains the smallest piece of surviving Anglo-Saxon written manuscript. The book had been on loan to the British Library from 1979 to 2012, when the Library managed to purchase the book from the British Jesuit order.
4. Bay Psalm Book ($14,200,000)
Ranking number four on the list of most expensive books of all time is the first book to be published in what we today call the United States. It was produced a mere 20 years after the Pilgrims from England sailed across the Atlantic and arrived at Plymouth. There are 11 original surviving copies in the world, of which one was sold for this record price.
5. Rothschild Prayerbook ($13,400,000)
This item holds the world record for the most expensive illuminated manuscript to have ever been sold at auction. It was purchased in 1999 by a private collector, but was previously displayed by the Austrian National Library.
6. Gospels of Henry the Lion ($11,700,000)
Before the sale of the Codex Leicester in 1994, the Gospels of Henry the Lion was the most expensive book to have been sold at auction. It was sold in 1983 at Sotheby’s in London, where the German government paid for the sum in order to keep the book in German hands. It contains text from four gospels, and is the only copy of the book which was originally intended to be presented on the Virgin Mary’s altar at Brunswick Cathedral.
7. The Birds of America ($11,500,000, $8,800,000 and $7,900,000)
Technically taking the rank of 7th, 8th and 9th most expensive books ever sold is The Birds of America by John James Audubon. Three sales were made in 2010, 2000 and 2012 respectively. There are only 119 copies of Audubon’s famous illustrations of birds he observed in the United States, just 11 of which are held by private owners.
8. The Canterbury Tales ($7,500,000)
Not only one of the most expensive books in the world, The Canterbury Tales is also one of the most famous books in the world. The stories were written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 1300s, and are written exclusively in Middle English. The Tales are still studied to this day, and the 1998 sale was of the first edition printed in the world.
9. Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies ($6,100,000)
It may surprise you to know that this collection, otherwise known as the First Folio, is the only manuscript by Shakespeare to appear in this list. It contains 36 plays including The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, in addition to two of Shakespeare’s lost plays. There were 750 manuscripts printed, of which 228 are currently accounted for.
10. Les Liliacées ($5,000,000)
A relatively unknown book in much of the English-speaking world, Les Liliacées was produced by a Flemish artist known as “the Raphael of flowers”. The book contains original watercolor paintings, and has since been made available online.
Are you amazed by the prices these books achieved?