While “rarest” and “most expensive” often go hand-in-hand when it comes to book collecting, it’s important to make a distinction between the two because it is not always the case. It’s possible for a tome to be rarer than another (i.e. have less copies available), but not be valued as high as a book with more remaining copies. This is due to demand. Not all rare books are as highly prized or sought as others, reminding us again that supply and demand are the forces that truly determine value. A collector like David Disiere whose collection focuses on materials by and about Captain Cook for example, is going to find a lot more value in books of this subject matter than say 18th century fiction.
While there are books that have sold for more money than some of those featured in this list, these rare books represent a great diversity of age and content from across the centuries. Besides, like they say, money isn’t everything.
The Codex of Leicester
Leonardo da Vinci
This is a scientific journal written by Leonardo da Vinci. A true one of a kind, as the notebook was never published, it contains da Vinci’s observations and theories on a range of topics including water, astronomy, fossils, and more. As one of the great artists, inventors, and scientific minds of his time, the journal illustrates da Vinci’s thoughts through a mixture of notes and sketches written in the artist’s renowned “mirror writing” style.
Written over 500 years ago, the 72-page manuscript is named after the Earl of Leicester who purchased the book in 1717. Today, the book belongs to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who purchased The Codex for a record US$30.8 million in 1994, making it the most expensive book in the world. While it is one of thirty journals written by da Vinci, it is considered the most important of the collection.
Don’t have a cool $30 million laying around? A paperback edition was released in 2000 as a companion to the exhibition of The Codex at Australia’s Powerhouse Museum. It includes a reproduction of each page and a discussion of the work, but no translation.
Birds of America
John James Audubon
Although not your typical book, Birds of America by famous naturalist and artist James Audubon remains one of the rarest and most sought after works in the world. The book is a collection of 435 life-sized paintings of North American birds, and is the result of Audubon’s quest to paint every North American species of bird. Painted between 1827 and 1838, the book comprises four volumes and is over three feet tall. Of the 120 complete sets believed to exist today, 107 are owned by institutions. (Source: The Guardian)
The most recent copy to go to auction was at Sotheby’s in London eight years ago, where a London fine art dealer bought the illustrated work for £7.3m ($11.5 million US).
The Gutenberg Bible
The Gutenberg Bible is the first book printed with moveable metal type – in other words, a printing press. Printed around 1454, the book was printed on a revolutionary printing press invented by Johann Gutenberg, which made it possible to quickly produce many copies of a book for the first time. Prior to Gutenberg’s invention, books were produced either entirely by hand or with block-printing.
Gutenberg experimented with single sheets and small books before beginning his work on the Bible. His press was made of wood, while the type was a metal alloy that could withstand the pressure of a press. Each Gutenberg Bible is comprised of 1,286 pages and weighs 14 pounds. There are 49 copies known to exist, although only 21 of them are complete. (Source: Harry Ransom Center)
The last recorded sale of a Gutenberg Bible was at a Christie’s auction in 1987. Although incomplete, the book sold for $5.4 million, more than doubling the previous sale price for a complete bible in 1978 at $2.2 million. Leaf sales have taken place since then, with a single sheet selling for up to $100,000.
The First Folio is the first collection of plays by William Shakespeare ever printed. Published seven years after his death in 1623 by Shakespeare’s actor colleagues and friends Henry Condell and John Heminge, this printed text is the only source of the celebrated playwright’s work as none of the original manuscripts survived. This first collected edition includes 36 of Shakespeare’s plays.
Approximately 750 First Folios are believed to have been printed, with 233 known to have survived today. Several have been sold over recent years, with the highest price paid in 2006 at a Sotheby’s auction in London for a total of £2,808,000 ($5,153,000 US). Four years later, another went to auction again at Sotheby’s for £1,497,250, and two years ago, a First Folio sold for £1,870,000 at a Christie’s auction.
The Tales of Beedle the Bard
The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling is the most recent publication on this list. Known to millions of Harry Potter fans, The Tales of Beedle the Bard was introduced as a wizard’s classic in the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Although it was published worldwide in 2007 following the Harry Potter series, it makes the rare list for the seven limited edition copies that were handwritten and illustrated by J.K. Rowling.
Six of the handmade copies were bequeathed to special individuals in the author’s life, while the seventh was donated by Rowling to raise money for her charity Lumos. It sold in a Sotheby’s auction in December 2007 for a whopping £1.95m (US$3.98 m).
Since then, another of the handwritten books has been sold. This version was a copy gifted to Rowling’s publisher, which was sold in 2016 again by Sotheby’s for £368,750 (US$467,965 (Source: The Guardian)