Books are great. They can be impactful, illuminating, educative, and when they are very rare, very expensive. It is no longer news that rare objects with historical value are sold for extraordinary prices to collectors and investors and books are not exempt from this phenomenon. The most expensive rare books ever sold have fetched millions of dollars at auction from people who are willing to shell out big cash for a piece of history.
From the works of old scientists and writers to first edition copies of modern authors and legal documents, billionaires and rich institutions have thrown exorbitant amounts of money to own these rare books and in this article, we explore ten books they have paid out the most money for. Check it out below.
Most Expensive Rare Books Ever Sold
1. The Book of Mormon (Printer’s Manuscript) – $35 million
In what is possibly not a surprise, the most expensive rare book ever sold is a religious book, and interestingly, it was bought by the religious body, The Church of Latter-Day Saints, the church this book helped found.
This particular book was written by Joseph F. Smith himself, and this manuscript is one of the copies written at the time to be published and used by members of the Mormon church. This copy was originally owned by David Whitmer, one of the founders of the church, who passed it on to his grandchild, George Schweich.
The book contains John Whitmer’s manuscript history, parts of John Smith’s translation of the Bible, a piece of paper containing copied Book of Mormon characters.
Although the Church of the Latter Day Saints had tried to buy it from David Whitmer in the 1870s, it eventually got its hand on its piece of history in 2017 when this book sold for $35 million.
2. The Codex of Leicester – $30.8 million
When this book was originally written by Leonardo Da Vinci, we doubt he thought it would end up as screensavers and wallpapers in modern computers, but that has been the story of the Codex of Leicester.
Also known as the Codex Hammer, the book, if you adjust for inflation, is the most expensive rare book ever sold at $52.8 million if you consider inflation and the fact that it was sold in 1994.
The 72-page book, which is more of a manuscript contains musings by the great scientific mind, theories, and observations on a range of subjects and topics, including the luminosity of the moon, movement of water and fossils.
It does not have the cure to solve all the world’s problems as suggested in the show, Alias, but it is a valuable piece of knowledge and it is no surprise that Bill Gates shelled out $30.8 million of his fortune to own this book.
3. The Magna Carta – $21.3 million
If you are not a history buff, there is a chance the only time you have heard the word Magna Carta was from Jay Z, but the famous rapper took the title to his album from a piece of history – the Magna Carta book.
The book is a charter, which is essentially a memorandum of agreements drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and was signed by King John of England and a group of rebel barons.
The charter, which was well documented in the book was supposed to protect both parties from one another but it proved to be ineffective as both parties failed to commit to the terms of the charter.
Still, it did not keep this book from becoming a rare piece of history. Only 250 copies of the original 1215 text were made, and one of them fetched $21.3 million in an auction in 2007, paid for by David Rubenstein who promptly put it back in the National Archives.
4. The St. Cuthbert Gospel – $14.3 million
As mentioned earlier, both personalities and institutions go to extreme lengths to have rare books in their collection. The fourth most expensive rare book ever sold was bought by the British Library, who acquired the surprisingly intact book in 2012.
St. Cuthbert Gospel, which is also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel is a simplified version of the Gospel of John, written in Latin.
The book was originally discovered in 1104 in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfame, where it is believed to have been placed since 687.
The book, despite being over 1,300 years old still possesses the looks of a new book, with its binding and cover intact.
It was originally owned by an individual who donated it to the Jesuit community in Belgium, where it remained for 250 years before it was loaned to the British Library and then eventually purchased in 2012.
5. Bay Psalm Book – $14.2 million
This book is essentially the book of Psalms, but it bears the distinction of being the first book to be printed on the soil of what is now known today to be the United States.
At the time this book was printed in 1650, settlers had landed in Plymouth Rock in British North America for 20 years.
Aside from its uniqueness as the first of its kind, there are also only 11 copies of his book believed to be in existence, and this particular one was bought in 2013 by the billionaire, David Rubenstein for $14.2 million.
Before he bought the book, it had originally been sold in an auction for $151,000 in 1947.
6. Rothschild Prayerbook – $13.4 million
The Rothschild family have been one of the most influential families in the history of the world, and it comes as no surprise that one of the most expensive rare books ever sold takes its name from the family. Why? Because they have owned the book since 1868, before losing it to the Nazis. It was eventually returned to the family in 1999 by the National Library, Vienna, where it had been since 1942.
The book itself is a piece of 16th century Flemish history. It is an illuminated manuscript that contains paintings by multiple artists believed to have been Renaissance miniaturists.
The Rothschild Prayerbook acquired its status among the priciest rare books ever when it was sold to Kerry Stokes in 2014 for $13.6 million.
7. Gospels of Henry the Lion – $11.7 million
The older the better and you won’t find many books with historical significance still in existence from the 12th century, which is why the Gospels of Henry the Lion commanded such a hefty price when it went up for auction in 1983, where it sold for $11.7 million to a West Germany consortium.
The book is an illuminated Romanesque book believed to have been made for the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Lion.
The book was bought by the Germany consortium who consider it to be a piece of German history due to the fact Henry the Lion is seen as an important figure in the creation of Germany.
The book is owned by the German Federal Government and it is held at the Herzog August Library where it makes an appearance to the public, once every two years.
8. The Birds of America – $11.5 million
The Birds of America is the work of John James Audubon, who embarked on the documentation of the wide variety of birds in the US by painting them in this book. The first edition of the book, which is a series, was published for the first time in 1827.
There are a few copies of the book (123 to be exact) and some of them have been bought in high priced auctions over the years, the first of them by a Qatari Prince who paid $8.8 million for it in 2000.
However, the copy that made it into the most expensive rare books ever sold was bought in 2010 by Michael Tollemache, a renowned art dealer who outbid three interested parties.
Here is a fun fact, when adjusted for inflation, five sold copies of The Birds of America would account for five of the most expensive rare books ever sold.
9. Babylonian Talmud – $9.3 million
There are a few Babylonian Talmud copies in existence but there are only 14 that are complete volume sets from the 16th century.
The book is a collection of the tenets of Judaism and it is basically the Jewish Bible, and this set was printed by Daniel Bomberg.
This Babylonian Talmud sold for an incredible $9.3 million in 2015, and despite his interest in remaining anonymous, the book is believed to have been bought by Leon Black, a billionaire known to be an investor and art collector.
While it might pale in comparison to other rare books on this list because of its cost, it retains the crown as the most expensive piece of Judaism ever sold at an auction. It reportedly was in the possession of Westminster Abbey for over 400 years before its value and existence became apparent.
10. The Canterbury Tales – $7.5 million
Every bibliophile knows the sentimental value of first editions, and when the author is a historical figure like Geoffrey Chaucer, then owning a first edition becomes more than just sentimental value but an investment.
The first edition book, which was published in 1477 became the property of John Paul Getty Jr in 1998 when he shelled out $7.5 million to own one.
If you are wondering why it costs that much, that is because there are only fourteen of them in existence.
As for the book itself, it is a collection of stories with a total of 17,000 lines that were written in Middle English.
Thus, wraps up the most expensive rare books ever sold. Other notable books that didn’t crack the top ten are Shakespeare First Folio, which sold for $6.1 million, Les Lilacees for $5.0 million, Gutenberg Bible for $4.9 million and The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which sold for $3.9 million.