We’ve probably all felt the pull of a good book: from the brilliance of the prose to the beauty of its illustrations, any artfully bound text can hold a captivating quality. Add in a dash of history and a pinch of rarity, and you are well on your way to a recipe for some of the most coveted books of all time. In this article, we explore some of these top-selling titles that broke records and astonished auction goers with their striking sales prices. From priceless manuscripts to the most expensive first editions of iconic texts, we’ll look at the reasons why these books are so compelling to collectors.
The Book of Mormon, 1830
Sold for: $35 million in a private sale (September 2017)
Holding the record as the most expensive antique book ever sold is the original printer’s draft of the Book of Mormon, hand-written following the dictation of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith. Considered one of the central texts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), the Book of Mormon was purportedly derived from Smith’s translation of text found inscribed on golden tablets discovered near his Palmyra, New York, home in the 1820s.
This draft then made its way to the local printer, E.B. Grandin, for typesetting before the hand-crafted manuscript was given to a member of the growing Mormon church for safekeeping. It stayed within the church’s possession until its sale in 1903; the 2017 purchase, then, marks the manuscript’s fitting return to the LDS archives. Such formative texts can achieve impressive auction prices even when they are not so unique: a 2018 auction of a first edition publication of the Book of Mormon sold for $80,000.
The Codex Leicester, circa 1506-1510
Sold for: $30.8 million at Christie’s (November 1994)
The next highest on the list of most expensive antique books ever sold is the Codex Leicester, a 72-page text purchased by technology tycoon Bill Gates in November 1994. Perhaps the “author” of the text will help to explain its high price: its pages were crafted by none other than Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci between stays in both Milan and Florence. With more than 300 illustrations and diary-like entries (written backward, of course, as was characteristic for Leonardo) that impart the innovative Renaissance figure’s ruminations on science, the book is one of only about 20 such compendiums produced by the prodigious artist.
Why not name it the Codex Leonardo? This volume, following tradition, took its name from the last person who owned it – the Earl of Leicester – although it had been purchased by Armand Hammer in 1980 (technically updating the name to the Codex Hammer). Hammer left his collection to the eponymous Hammer Museum of the University of California that later put the book up for auction in 1994.
The Magna Carta, 13th Century
Sold for: $21.321 million at Sotheby’s (December 2007)
While not exactly a book, this antique manuscript is assuredly one of the most expensive ever sold. Originally drafted in the 13th century, the Magna Carta was a royal charter developed by the Archbishop of Canterbury primarily to regulate the actions of the English King and to establish a sense of common law among his people. While the initial impact of the document was mixed, the Magna Carta would be a document to which historians and politicians would point centuries later as one of the foundational pillars of the legal system as we know it today. This particular edition of the Magna Carta, remarkably well-preserved and bearing the seal of the King of England, is thus a wonderful piece of history.
Northumberland Bestiary, circa 1250-1260
Sold for: an estimated $20 million at a private sale (2007)
The Northumberland Bestiary is at once one of the most celebrated and most mysterious texts on our list. Most likely made in the 13th century in an English scriptorium, this Gothic-era book is a fantastical, fairytale-like compendium of descriptions and discussions of both real and mythical beasts accompanied by more than one hundred breathtaking medieval drawings. Who made the book is unknown, as is the sales price: following its first appearance at a Sotheby’s auction in 1990, the Northumberland Bestiary was later purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2007 for an undisclosed amount (although most estimates suggest it was around $20 million).
The Rothschild Prayerbook, circa 1505-1510
Sold for: $13 million at Christie’s (January 2014)
Widely considered one of the world’s most expensive antique books, this 16th-century illuminated manuscript was made in the region of Flanders and originally most likely destined for the hands of the Netherlandish royal court. Contributing to the incredible amount of illustration in this Renaissance-era book was Gerard David, a renowned master painter of the era. Just like the previous books, this antique book takes its name, though, from the famed Rothschild family, as it was documented as being part of Anselm von Rothschild’s collection as early as the late 19th century and was passed down among his heirs before appearing at Christie’s in 2014.
St. Cuthbert Gospel, 7th Century
Sold for: £9,000,000 ($14,300,000) at Sotheby’s (April 2012)
Another of the most expensive antique books sold at auction is the St. Cuthbert Gospel, which is certainly one of the oldest books on our list. Dating to the 7th century, this small text originally accompanied St. Cuthbert, the bishop of Lindisfarne, in burial but reemerged in the 12th century when unearthed during Viking raids. While not as lavishly illustrated as the impeccable Rothschild prayerbook, the St. Cuthbert Gospel is significant because it features the oldest original bookbinding on record. Moreover, the text comes from one of the celebrated hubs of illuminated manuscript production, as both the Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 700) Codex Amiantus (before 716) hail from this same bishopric. Given this status, it should not be surprising that this book was snatched up by the British Library when it appeared at Sotheby’s in 2012.
Bay Psalm Book, 1650
Sold for: $14.165 million at Sotheby’s (November 2013)
The Bay Psalm Book, a text widely recognized as the first book to have been printed in North America. The product of early colonial American printing, this book was produced only decades after the arrival of the pilgrims and was the work of Stephen Daye, who had been dispatched from England – along with his printing press – to assist in creating a prayer book for use in the colonies. Only eleven copies of the Bay Psalm Book are known to survive, and the last copy to appear at auction before this 2013 Sotheby’s appearance was in 1947.
John J. Audubon, The Birds of America, 1827-1838
Sold for: $9.65 million at Christie’s (June 2018)
Nature lovers take note: John J. Audubon’s classic 19th-century text, The Birds of America, makes our list of the most expensive books ever sold at auction with an exceptional edition that appeared at Christie’s in 2018. Once part of the Duke of Portland’s collection, this four-volume set was preserved in nearly pristine condition, with the richness of each plate’s color still present as well as the original binding constructed by John Mackenzie, who once served as Bookbinder to the kings of England. This text, of which less than 15 copies are documented, showcases more than 1,000 bird species rendered at life-size scales and all hand-colored.
The Complete Babylonian Talmud, printed by Daniel Bomberg (The Bomberg Talmud), first (1519-1520/1523) and second (1525-1539) editions
Sold for: $9.3 million at Sotheby’s (December 2015)
The record holder for the most expensive book ever sold in the realm of Judaica is that of the Bomberg Talmud, which outlines across multiple volumes a collection of key points of rabbinical debate over Biblical law. Expertly printed in the original Hebrew language, this set was made for Richard Bruarne, a 16th-century Hebrew scholar, yet somehow made its way into the archives of Westminster Abbey, where it was safeguarded for generations.
This particular edition is noteworthy not only for its expansiveness but also for its exquisiteness, as Bomberg and his Venetian printing workshops were acclaimed for the magnificence of their bound books. This Talmud set reflects that brilliance and is one of only 14 that survives in its entirety today, making it a truly spectacular find.
Quran Fragment, 7th Century
Sold for: £2.484 million ($4.9 million) at Christie’s (April 2008)
Setting a new record for antique Islamic texts, a fragmentary leaf palimpsest from a 7th-century copy of the Quran sold for an astonishing £2.5 million – many times more than the estimated price – in early 2008. Serving as the central holy text of the Islamic faith, the Quran serves as one of the oldest illuminated texts to have been created. This leaf from the text reveals portions of the Sura-al-Nisa, or fourth chapter of the book, that outlines elements of laws and regulations for daily life. The text of this leaf is crafted in the Hijazi script, a form of Arabic calligraphic writing that was frequently employed in early editions of the Quran.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1477
Sold for: £4.6 million ($7.5 million) at Christie’s (July 1998)
One of the most celebrated texts of English history, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales turned heads again at a Christie’s auction when a first edition of the text sold for more than $7 million. It is one of only a few surviving copies from the 1477 edition printed by William Caxton, a purported pioneer of the printing press in 15th-century England, that has survived to the present day. This copy is in exceptional condition and illuminates the brilliance (and bawdiness) of Chaucer’s middle English prose marvelously.
Giacomo Casanova, Histoire de ma vie, first published 1820
Sold for: €7 million ($9.06 million) in private sale (February 2010)
Fans of a good romance novel will enjoy this most expensive list entry: the hand-written account of steamy seducer Giacomo Casanova sold for more than $9 million in 2010 when it was purchased by the French National Library. Venetian dandy Casanova earned a reputation over his lifetime with his numerous amorous endeavors, which he wrote about profusely over his entire life. These pages – totaling more than 3,700 in number – were once thought lost in a World War II Allied bombing of Germany. Later, though, it was determined that they had been locked up on Leipzig for safekeeping and thus reemerged unscathed.
William Shakespeare, Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published According to the True Originall Copies, 1623.
Sold for: $9.978 million at Christie’s (October 2020)
One of the most brilliant bards of all time undoubtedly needed to appear in our list of most expensive books in the world: a first edition of William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (also sometimes known as the First Folio) sold for a whopping $9.978 million in a late 2020 auction.
Within its pages are 36 of the famed wright’s plays, neatly organized with the input of John Heminge and Henry Condell, who were close associates of Shakespeare’s and helped to compile these writings following Shakespeare’s demise. This edition, of which only six remain today, was assured to sell at top value despite the financial impacts of the raging global pandemic and far surpassing the sale price of the last copy to appear (that was purchased by Paul Allen in 2001 for $6.166 million).
The Gutenberg Bible, 1449-1450
Sold for: $4.9 million at Christie’s (1987)
An iconic text for its connections with the origins of printing, an edition of The Gutenberg Bible charted new territory for record prices for antique manuscripts in 1987 when it sold for $4.9 million at a Christie’s New York auction. The creator, Johannes Gutenberg, is widely recognized as an essential founder of the field of printing and developed groundbreaking strategies for movable type.
This volume used this new technology to create copies of this religious text for wider circulation than had been possible in earlier eras – when hand-scribed illuminated manuscripts were the limits of such devotional texts – but only a few survive to the modern-day. With fewer than fifty copies of The Gutenberg Bible in existence today, and with only half of those reflecting the complete text, this antique book was sure to sell fast.
Sold for: £2.136 million (nearly $4 million) at Sotheby’s (October 2006)
Combining a bit of ancient history with the brilliance of 15th-century publication, our last record-setting antique book to appear at auction is Cosmographia, a book considered the world’s first printed atlas and that sold in 2006 for nearly $4 million. Compiling the observations and calculations of ancient historian Claudius Ptolemaeus, this edition of Cosmographia was published in Bologna and was translated by Iacopo d’Angelo. It also is one of the earliest surviving texts to incorporate engraved illustrations. Adding to its history are marginalia throughout scribed by German Renaissance humanists Willibald Pirckheimer and Hieronymus Münzer.
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