A book is valued not only for its content but also for its historical worth. Rare books are valuable collector’s items that can fetch millions of dollars when auctioned. Wealthy bibliophiles, libraries and collectors from around the world vie with each other in auctions to buy a rare handwritten manuscript or a printed book that perhaps had cost only a few dollars when they were first published.
Given below is a list of books that were sold for staggering prices.
Codex Leicester – $30.8 million
Codex Leicester is the most famous of all the 30 scientific journals of Leonardo da Vinci. It was bought by Bill Gates from the Christie’s auction in New York for more than $30 million, making it the world’s most expensive book. However, even the staggering price tag cannot explain the true worth of the book, which is invaluable.
The 72 pages handwritten journal was compiled by the famous architect, designer, engineer, scientist, painter, investor and sculptor between 1506 and 1510 in Milan. The notebook covers various subjects including Leonardo da Vinci’s theories on fossils, hydrology, astronomy and more.
1297 Copy of Magna Carta – $21.3 million
Although countless digital copies of the original Magna Carta can be downloaded free of cost, a physical copy of the original 13th century parchment costs millions of dollars. It is believed that only 17 original official attested copies or exemplified copies of Magna Carta are available in the cathedrals and libraries of England.
The 1297 copy of the Great Charter of the Liberties of England was sold for $21.3 million to American financier and philanthropist David M. Ribenstein at the Sotheby’s in 2007.
St Cuthbert Gospel – $14.3 million
The gospel book buried with St Cuthbert in 698 and recovered from the saint’s coffin in 1104 is considered to be one of the oldest intact books in Europe. The Society of Jesus (British Province) had the gospel in its custody since the middle of the 18th century. In 2012 it was sold to the British Library through Christie’s auction house for $14.3 million.
The text is beautifully preserved even today. The pocket size gospel is also one of the smallest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to survive till date. Bound in red leather, the book is essentially a Gospel of John written in Latin.
Bay Psalm Book – $14.2 million
Printed in 1640, Bay Psalm Book is considered the first book to be printed in the United States, which was then known as British North America. The first edition of the book was sold for $14.2 million at the Sotheby’s auction. The rare book was bought by David Rubenstein who is also the proud owner of the $21.3 million Magna Carter.
The book is a translation of the original Hebrew psalms. It was published by the Puritan religious leaders of the English settlement areas of Massachusetts Bay Colony almost two decades after the pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth.
Rothschild Prayerbook – $13.4 million
Rothschild Prayerbook is an exquisite 16th century illustrated Book of Hours. The book features 150 pages of text and Flemish Renaissance painting. The 1505 century manuscript is one of the best examples of outstanding miniature painting and illustrations of the medieval period. The Book of Hours originally belonged to a member of the House of Habsburg in the Netherlands.
In the 19th century the book came into the possession of the Rothschild family. In addition to the illustrations, the book is also acclaimed for its ornamental decorative borders, a number of which are believed to be the work of the famous 16th century miniature painter Alexander Bening. It was bought by an anonymous European collector from the Christie’s auction for a staggering $13.4 million.
Gospels of Henry the Lion – $11.7 million
Gospels of Henry the Lion is a 12th century German masterpiece. The book was produced in the Helmarshausen Abbey, probably by monk Herimann, under the instructions of Henry the Lion, the Duke of Saxony. The book, dedicated to the altar of the Virgin Mary at the Brunswick Cathedral, contains 266 pages including 50 full-page illustrations.
The preface features a poem dedicated to Henry the Lion and his wife Matilda. The rest of the content contains texts from four gospels. At the Sotheby’s auction in 1983, the German government bought it for a whopping $11.7 million.
The Birds of America by John James Audubon – $11.5 – $7.9 million
The Birds of America is considered one of the best collections of ornithological art. A complete edition of the book featuring 435 illustrations created by John James Audubon is one of the most valuable books produced in the 19th century. Only 120 copies of the masterpiece are believed to survive till date. In 2000, a copy of the book was purchased by a member of Qatar’s Al-Thani family for $8.8 million from the Christie’s.
A copy of the book from the collection of Fredrick Fermor-Hesketh, the Second Baron Hesketh, fetched $11.5 million at the Sotheby’s in 2010, where it was bought by a London-based art dealer. In 2012 an anonymous American collector purchased another copy of the book, which was in the possession of the Fourth Duke of Portland, for $7.9 million.
First Edition of The Canterbury Tales – $7.5 million
The first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was sold for $7.5 million to Mag Brothers, the London based book dealers in 1998. Only 12 copies of the first edition of the English masterpiece published in 1477 by William Caxton still survive. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer narrates the story of pilgrims on their way to the Shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury from London. The copy belonged to the library of a chandler named John Radcliff and was later sold to the first Earl Fitzwilliam in 1776 for £6.
Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies published in 1623 – $6.1 million
In 1623 when the book containing collections of 36 plays written by William Shakespeare was published, the First Folio was priced at £1. In 2001 when a copy of the first edition of the book was auctioned at Christie’s in New York, it fetched $6.1 million. The First Folio is one of the only complete copies of the works of Shakespeare.
Only 750 copies of the complete collection of works of Shakespeare compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell were printed, of which only 228 copies exist till date.
Gutenberg Bible – $4.9 million
Gutenberg Bible was the first book to be printed with movable metal type. The bible was printed by Johann Gutenberg who revolutionized book printing by inventing the printing press. The bible written in Latin was printed in 1454 or 1455. Only 21 complete copies of the original Gutenberg Bible are believed to exist. In 1987 a copy of the rare book was sold for $4.9 million.