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10 Most Expensive Books Ever Sold

It seems like new records set all the time for the most expensive book ever sold. And rare book buying seems to increase in popularity every day. So which rare books truly deserve the title of the most expensive in history? And how much did people pay for them? Here are the top 10, in ascending order. The answers might surprise you!

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10. Les Liliacées, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

Via audubonart.com

First on the list is a book about... lilies? Actually, this is probably the greatest book about flowers ever published. Redouté is considered history's greatest botanical illustrator, and "Les Liliacées"—the lilies—is his masterpiece. It was published in 16 volumes from 1802-1816. A complete set weighs over 300 pounds.

Redouté was an official court artist to both Queen Marie Antoinette and Empress Josephine, Napoleon's first wife. This copy of "Les Liliacées" belonged to Josephine. When it went up for auction in 1985, it sold for $5.5 million—in less than three minutes.

9. Shakespeare's First Folio

haverford.edu

You might think the greatest writer in the English language would be at the top of the list. But 228 copies of the first folio are still in existence, which means it's not the rarest of rare books. Still, this is the most authoritative version we have for most of Shakespeare's plays—it was carefully assembled by friends and colleagues after the playwright's death—so it makes sense it's up here.

The most ever paid for a copy was by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, in a 2001 Christie’s. He paid $6.16 million for his copy. Back in 1623, the folio was offered for just £1!

8. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer

denverlibrary.org

Geoffrey Chaucer’s masterpiece is another foundational work of English literature. He wrote it between 1387 and 1400, but it wasn’t published as a printed book until 1476. This first edition was published by William Caxton, the first English printer. Only a dozen 1476 editions survive—so it's definitely rare than Shakespeare's first folio.

The copy that makes the list sold for was bought by the first Earl Fitzwilliam in 1776 for £6—and sold at Christie’s in 1998 for $7.5 million.

7. The Birds of America, by John James Audubon

extravaganzi.com

According to some sources, a truly accurate list of the ten most expensive books ever sold would have to include three to five copies of Birds of America—that’s how valuable it is. The original edition of John Audubon’s guide to the birds was both huge and luxurious. It measured over three feet tall because Audubon wanted his illustrations to be life-sized. The illustrations were printed on hand-made paper and were hand-painted with watercolors. He produced a series of eight volumes which subscribers bought one at a time; they represented a huge investment. It’s estimated that only 200 complete sets were ever produced, and just 120 are known to have survived.

The highest priced copy sold for $11.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2010.

6. Gospels of Henry the Lion

commons.wikimedia.org

This is a totally unique book: a 266-page manuscript of the four gospels, created between 1175 and 1188, for the altar of Brunswick Cathedral, in Saxony, Germany. It gets its name from Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, who commissioned it. It’s considered a masterpiece of medieval illuminated manuscripts, containing 50 full-page illustrations. In 1983, it was bought by a consortium of German government organizations in order to keep it in the country—they paid $11.7 million.

That held the record for the highest price ever paid for a book for over a decade, until the #1 book on this list took the title.

5. The Rothschild Prayerbook

news.com.au

Another illuminated manuscript, this one was a prayerbook created in the Netherlands between 1500 to 1520. Its illustrations are extremely elaborate and were executed by many of the master illuminators of the its day. It was owned by the Rothschild family in Vienna during the 19th century and early 20th century. After WWII it came back into their possession. The family sold it again in 1999 for $13.4 million, the record for an illuminated manuscript.

4. The Bay Psalm Book

most-expensive.com

It may not look like much, but the Bay Psalm Book is historically very important: it was the first book printed in what is now the US. Published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, it contained a new translation of the psalms, created by the Pilgrims, and used by members of the colonies for over a century. Only eleven surviving copies are known. In 2013 Boston’s Old South Church auctioned a copy at Sotheby’s for $14.16 million. That’s the current record for a single printed book. It was bought by the businessman David Rubenstein, who shows up in #2 on our list.

3. St. Cuthbert Gospel

pasthorizonspr.com

This is perhaps the least important-looking book on the list. It’s a tiny, pocket-sized book of the gospel of John, measuring just under 5 ½ inches tall. However, it is the earliest surviving example of bookbinding in the West—in other words, the oldest European book. Created sometime in the 7th century, it was buried in the casket of the English saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, who died in 687. The British Library bought it from the Jesuit order, in 2012, for $14.3 million.

2. Magna Carta

www4.pictures.gi.zimbio.com

This one’s not really a book. It’s actually a manuscript written on a single piece of parchment. But it deserves a spot on the list because of its astronomical price tag. The original Magna Carta had enormous historical implications because it was the first document to declare that the king of England’s power was limited, and that English citizens could only be punished according to the law of the land. It was signed by King John in 1215—only four examples of the original 1215 text remain.

A 1297 example is the only early version still in private hands. It was held by the earls of Cardigan for five centuries. Ross Perot bought it in the 1980s, then sold it at Sotheby’s in 2007. It was bought by David Rubenstein, who put it on display at the National Archives, in Washington, DC. Price tag: $21.3 million.

1. Codex Leicester

Via thediagonal.com

The most expensive book ever sold is one of Leonardo da Vinci’s journals. It was written in 1508, around the time of the Mona Lisa. It contains mostly scientific observations about the movement of water and the effect of moonlight, and also foresees later geological discoveries with a discussion of fossils. Handwritten in Italian, it displays Da Vinci’s famous “mirror” writing. It is probably Da Vinci’s most famous surviving journal. It takes its name from the earl of Leicester, who purchased it in 1719.

The Codex became the most expensive book in the world when Bill Gates bought it in 1994 for $30.8 million. Luckily, we can all see it—Gates had the book digitized, and the resulting images were turned into screensavers and wallpaper files.

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