10 Most Expensive Books Sold in History

| |

Rare books are some of the most valuable collectibles in the world. In general, the most expensive books are rare original complete copies that are still in good condition. Also, books that exist in low numbers are sought after by collectors. All of the rare books on this list were sold for tens of millions of dollars. For the most part, the books on this list are illuminated religious texts or first editions of some of the world’s best known works. Some of these expensive and rare books are on display in museums around the world. Others are in the private collections of famous billionaires.

  1. Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies (First Folio)
  2. Price at Time of Sale: $9.98 Million
    Date of Sale: October 2020
    Year Published: 1623
    Author: William Shakespeare
    Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies (First Folio)
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons


    In general, copies of the First Folio edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies are very valuable. These books are often sold for millions of dollars at auction. In 2020, a copy sold by Mills College fetched nearly $10 million. This was the most ever paid for a copy of Shakespeare’s work and it is now the most expensive work of literature.

    The First Folio was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The book contains 36 plays, including all of Shakespeare’s best known works such as Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Only about 235 copies of the First Folio are known to exist today, but unknown copies pop up from time to time. Only six of the known copies are complete, including the one sold in 2020.

    Did you know?

    When the First Folio of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies was first published, 18 out of the 36 plays in it had never been printed before. Some of those 18 plays includeMacbeth, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar. It is believed that these plays would have been lost had they not appeared in the First Folio.


  3. The Birds of America
  4. Price at Time of Sale: $11.57 Million
    Date of Sale: December 2010
    Year Published: 1827 – 1838
    Author: John James Audubon
    The Birds of America
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

    The Birds of America by John James Audubon is one of the rarest and most valuable books in the world. Only 120 complete sets of the book exist and any copies that come up for auction fetch millions of dollars. The most ever paid for a copy of The Birds of America was £7,321,250 (about $11.57 million) in 2010. The buyer was London-based art dealer Michael Tollemache, who outbid three others during the auction.

    This copy of The Birds of America sold in 2010 originally belonged to Henry Witham of Durham. There are inscriptions in the first volume of the set that show the book was a gift from Witham’s wife in 1831. Lord Hesketh later bought the book from Witham’s descendants in 1951.

    Did you know?

    Of the 120 known copies of The Birds of America, 107 reside in institution collections, while the remaining 13 are in private collections.


  5. Gospels of Henry the Lion
  6. Price at Time of Sale: $11.7 Million
    Date of Sale: December 1983
    Year Published: 1175
    Author: Order of Saint Benedict
    Gospels of Henry the Lion
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

    The Gospels of Henry the Lion was sold at auction in 1983 for $11.7 million. The book was purchased by the German government through a national initiative to preserve German national treasures. At the time the Gospels of Henry the Lion was the most expensive book. Its record was shattered by Bill Gates’ purchase of the Codex Leicester.

    The Gospels of Henry the Lion was made for the duke on commission at the Benedictine Helmarshausen Abbey. Before its sale in 1983, the book had not been in the public eye for more than four decades. Despite dating to the 12th century, the Gospels of Henry the Lion are completely intact and it remains in good condition. Today, the Gospels of Henry the Lion is kept in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, and for security reasons is displayed only once every two years.

    Did you know?

    The Gospels of Henry the Lion features 41 perfectly preserved illustrations in brilliant colors, and more than 1,500 illuminated initials.


  7. Rothschild Prayerbook
  8. Price at Time of Sale: $13.6 Million
    Date of Sale: January 2014
    Year Published: c.1505 – 1510
    Author: N/A
    Rothschild Prayerbook
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

    The Rothschild Prayerbook is a Flemmish illuminated manuscript of the book of hours. The book dates to the early 16th century and was worked on by various artists. Some of those artists include Gerard Horenbout, Simon Bening, Gerard David, and several other Flemmish master miniaturists.

    Most of the early history of the Rothschild Prayerbook is unknown, but it turned up in the collection of the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family in the late 19th century. During the German annexation of Austria in 1938, the Nazis confiscated the Prayerbook from the Rothschild family. Following the War, the Rothschild were pressured into donating the Prayerbook as well as other rare works they owned to the Austrian National Library. After international pressure, the Austrian Government returned the Prayerbook to the Rothschild family in 1999. They then sold it at auction for £8,580,000 (then $13,400,000), still the world record auction price for an illuminated manuscript.

    Did you know?

    When the Rothschild Prayerbook was sold in 2014, its buyer initially remained anonymous and many people believed that the beautiful illuminated manuscript ended up back into a private collection. A short time later, Australian businessman and billionaire Kerry Stokes revealed that he had purchased the Prayerbook and he has loaned it to National Library of Australia in Canberra for display.


  9. Bay Psalm Book
  10. Price at Time of Sale: $14.2 Million
    Date of Sale: November 2013
    Year Published: 1640
    Author: N/A
    Bay Psalm Book
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

    In addition to being one of the most expensive books ever, the Bay Psalm Book is famous for being the first book printed in what is now the United States. This specific copy of the Bay Psalm Book that was sold in 2013 for $14.2 million is one of only 11 surviving copies. Philanthropist and American financier David Rubenstein purchased this copy of the Bay Psalm Book. Rubenstein plans to loan his copy of the Bay Psalm Book to libraries and museums across the U.S.

    Rubenstein’s Bay Psalm Book is one of only five complete copies. It has been rebound and is one of only six copies with the original title page intact.

    Did you know?

    Of the 11 existing copies of the Bay Psalm Book, only one is held outside of the United States. That copy is currently owned by the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.


  11. St Cuthbert Gospel
  12. Price at Time of Sale: $14.34 Million
    Date of Sale: April 2012
    Year Published: c.710 – 730 CE
    Author: N/A
    St Cuthbert Gospel
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

     

    The St Cuthbert Gospel, also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, is the oldest intact book from Europe. In 2012, the British Library shelled out a fortune of $14.34 million to acquire the rare book. The book was first discovered in the tomb of St Cuthbert, the bishop of Lindisfarne, in the early 12th century. Initially, it was believed that the Gospel personally belonged to St Cuthbert. However, further research revealed that the Gospel was most likely made after St Cuthbert’s death.

    The St Cuthbert Gospel is a copy of the Gospel of St John. It is believed that the book was a gift from Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey, where it was written.

    Did you know?

    The St Cuthbert Gospel stayed hidden in St Cuthbert’s coffin even after Vikings began raiding the northeast coast of England, which forced St Cuthbert’s monastic community to flee and take the coffin with them.


  13. Northumberland Bestiary
  14. Price at Time of Sale: est. $20 Million
    Date of Sale: June 2007
    Year Published: Mid 13th Century CE
    Author: Unknown
    Northumberland Bestiary
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

    In 2007, the J. Paul Getty Museum acquired the Northumberland Bestiary for an undisclosed amount. However, the Northumberland Bestiary has an estimated value of $20 million. The Northumberland Bestiary is an illuminated bestiary dating to around 1250-1260. It contains 112 miniature paintings of real and imaginary animals. The images are accompanied with moral lessons, which was one of the most important traditions to emerge from medieval England.

    The exact origins of the Northumberland Bestiary is unknown. Its earliest known owner was Robert Turges, a gentleman who lived in Dorset, England around the early 16th century. The Bestiary was later inherited by the Dukes of Northumberland around the 18th century, hence the Bestiary’s name. The Dukes of Northumberland sold the Bestiary in 1990 to a private buyer, who then sold it to the Getty Museum.

    Did you know?

    Some of the animals depicted in the Northumberland Bestiary include lions, monkeys, griffins, serpent-like dragons, and flying fish.


  15. Sherborne Missal
  16. Price at Time of Sale: $21.21 Million
    Date of Sale: June 2001
    Year Published: Early 15th Century CE
    Author: N/A – primarily illuminated by John Siferwas and written by John Whas
    Sherborne Missal
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

    The Sherborne Missal, an early 15th century English illuminated missal (a service book used for Mass), was purchased by the British Library in 2001 for $21.21 million. Despite its age, the Sherborne Missal is in excellent condition and is considered one of the finest examples of International Gothic paintings in England. Today, the Sherborne Missal is on display at the Ritblat Gallery in the British Library.

    Originally, the Sherborne Missal was commissioned by Robert Bruyning, who served as abbot at the Abbey of St Mary in Sherborne in Dorset from 1385 to 1415. The main scribe who worked on the Missal was John Whas, a Benedictine monk of Sherborne Abbey. While several people worked on the illuminations, the main artist was a Dominican friar name John Siferwas.

    Did you know?

    In 2020, the British Library digitized all of the Sherborne Missal and has made it available for anyone to view online.


  17. Codex Leicester
  18. Price at Time of Sale: $30.8 Million
    Date of Sale: November 1994
    Year Published: 16th Century CE
    Author: Leonardo da Vinci
    Codex Leicester
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

    Back in 1994, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates purchased the Codex Leicester for $30.8 million. Accounting for inflation, the book is now worth about $53.8 million – the Codex is technically now the most valuable book in existence. The Codex Leicester is a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci.

    The 72-page notebook was written between 1506 – 1510. The Codex Leicester provides a rare firsthand look at da Vinci’s thoughts and includes sketches, diagrams, and early iterations of ideas. As with most of da Vinci’s surviving writings, the Codex is written in his famous mirror-image style, and is meant to be read from right to left. Over the years, Gates has loaned the Codex Leicester out to various museums to put on exhibits.

    Did you know?

    The Codex Leicester is named for Thomas Coke, who purchased the notebook in 1719 and later became the Earl of Leicester.


  19. Book of Mormon (Copy of Original Manuscript)
  20. Price at Time of Sale: $35 Million
    Date of Sale: September 2017
    Year Published: 1830
    Author: Joseph Smith
    Book of Mormon
    photo source: Wikimedia Commons

     

    In 2017, an original copy of the Book of Mormon sold for $35 million, making it the most expensive book in the world ever sold. The book, which was a printer’s manuscript was purchased by he Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This particular copy of the Book of Mormon was handwritten by Olive Cowdery, one of Joseph Smith’s – the founder of the Mormon Church – early followers. It is the most complete copy of the original manuscript in existence.

    This handwritten copy of the manuscript was given to the printer, E. B. Grandin, in Palmyra, New York, in 1830. Gradin used it to produce the first print edition of the Book of Mormon. The Mormon Chruch used funds raised from donors to purchase this copy of the Book of Mormon from the Church of Christ.

    Did you know?

    The printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon is almost complete and is only missing three lines of text.

Previous

8 of the Most Expensive Items in OSRS

8 of the Most Expensive Weddings in History

Next

Leave a Comment