Looking for a unique bookish gift for a friend or loved one? Well, unless you’re a one-percenter, look somewhere else, because this article focuses exclusively on the most expensive books ever sold!
But first, what makes a book valuable? Based on the research I did for this article, I’d say it depends on a variety of factors. Age, for one. As objects age, they start to fall apart, and people throw them out, especially if they weren’t worth much at the time (e.g. if they were mass produced or viewed as too puerile to matter). So the longer a book survives, especially if it remains in good condition, the higher the price.
That leads directly into another factor: rarity. A few centuries ago, book production and distribution was a lot more difficult than it is now. In 6th century Italy, for instance, copying out a single text would take even the best monastic scribe several weeks (and probably cost him his mental health). And, as previously mentioned, many books end up on the trash heap once they get too old and brittle. This adds to the rarity—and therefore the monetary value—of a book.
But age and rarity don’t mean much if the book has no cultural significance. The contents need to mean something, either because they were written by someone society values, they represent a milestone in literary history, or they are held sacred by a certain group of people.
It doesn’t happen often, but once all three of these elements are assembled, you’ve got a very expensive book on your hands.
As we go through each of the extravagantly priced books in this article, I include the amount each book was sold for at the time, followed by the 2019 dollar value in parentheses as calculated by this handy-dandy inflation calculator. I didn’t bother converting amounts if the sale date was 2016 or later.
But enough background info. Let’s take a look at some expensive books!
Quite a few religious texts are among the most expensive books ever sold. This isn’t surprising: as mentioned earlier, medieval book production was performed by monks, whose superiors naturally had a vested interest in spreading Christian texts (often at the expense of older, pagan texts). I’m sure those monks would be pleased to know that the fruits of their endless hours of labor may now be worth millions: the Rothschild Prayerbook went for $13.6 million ($14.8 million) in 2014, and the St. Cuthbert Gospel was sold for $14.7 million ($16.5 million) in 2012.
The current record for most expensive religious book ever sold was set in 2017 when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints spent $35 million on a handwritten printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Dating back to 1830, this volume was used to print the earliest copies of the Book of Mormon.
If you’re curious, the most expensive Bible ever is a Gutenberg Bible (more on Gutenberg later) that sold for $5.39 million ($12.2 million) in 1987; the most expensive Talmud went for $9.3 million ($10.1 million) in 2015; and the most expensive Quran was a 7th century fragment that sold for $4.9 million ($5.8 million) in 2008.
The Northumberland Bestiary is shrouded in secrecy. It was made in 13th century England, but no one knows who by—though I suppose it could have been monks, given that bestiaries served as a sort of religious animal encyclopedia. This particular bestiary sold for an undisclosed amount in 2007; rumor has it that the book went for $20 million ($24 million). You can download it for free from the Getty Museum website. I hope you can read Latin.
Another animal-based book worth loads of cash is Birds of America by John James Audubon, who painted every bird in America and collected them (the paintings, not the birds) in several volumes. Only 120 complete collections exist, so naturally, they’re worth a fair amount of change. To date, the most expensive copy was sold for $11.6 million ($13.3 million) in 2010.
The world record for the most expensive book ever sold is a science book: the Codex Leicester, which is a fancy name for what is essentially Leonardo da Vinci’s science diary. It was purchased in 1994 for $30.8 million ($53.5 million). Codex Leicester contains da Vinci’s musings on a whole mishmash of scientific topics, including water, the moon, and water on the moon.
European monks weren’t the only ones creating books, of course. At the same time, Chinese scholars were hard at work compiling history books for posterity. Whenever one dynasty ended, the emperor of the succeeding dynasty would order his scholars to record everything—from religious ceremonies and natural disasters to food and fashion—that had happened during the previous regime. These are collectively known as the Twenty-Four Histories (guess how many there are).
The most valuable of the Twenty-Four Histories (in terms of monetary value, anyway), is the New Book of Tang, which covers the entire Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 907 CE. Created in the 11th century, it was the official account of everything that happened during those very eventful three hundred years. A 13th-century copy sold in 2018 for $17.1 million.
Speaking of China, it was a Chinese inventor, Bi Sheng, who invented the first movable type. He used ceramic tiles to print texts more quickly and easily. Movable type soon spread to other Asian countries, but it wasn’t until the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg came up with his own movable type printing press, that Europeans were introduced to the wonders of streamlined book production. This invention came just in time for some of the most famous European writers of all…
William Shakespeare is one of the most celebrated writers in human history. But no, he does not hold the current record for most expensive fiction book sold. Not that Will is doing too shabby: a copy of his First Folio, printed in 1623 and including 36 of his most influential plays, went for $6.2 million ($9 million) in 2001.
The current record-holder for most expensive fiction book ever sold is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Specifically, a first edition, printed in 1477, was sold in 1998 for $7.6 million ($11.6 million). The only caveat to this is that the Northumberland Bestiary, previously discussed, contains accounts of multiple fictional animals. So a case could be made for including it in the fiction section instead.
A relatively new form of bookish entertainment, comics often were (and sometimes still are) dismissed as nothing more than cheap, childish entertainment. They were meant for kids to trade with friends, not to be kept in storage and treasured for decades. That makes special issues of old comics all the more valuable.
Action Comics #1 has been the world’s most expensive comic for years. That shouldn’t be surprising, since it features the debut of the world’s first superhero, Superman himself. Other important debuts—Batman, Spider-Man, and so forth—have sold for ridiculous sums as well, but they rarely come close to bringing in what high quality copies of Action Comics #1 can. The current record is $3.2 million ($3.5 million) for a copy sold in 2014. Not bad, considering it originally sold for ten cents.