If you love to read books, you must have noticed that some books are more expensive than others. Most often, you would have wondered why.
You may feel like words should not cost much, but you are wrong. Sometimes, they just cost that much.
Used since hundreds of years ago, books are probably the most important step in mankind’s evolution.
From the papyrus scrolls used in Ancient Egypt and the manuscripts in the monasteries of The Middle Ages, books evolved into what we know today and even appeared more and more in digital form.
The most expensive books in the world at this time might be hundreds of years old, but the value attached to them seems to appreciate with time. Like a fine wine, they get better with age.
You might not think that one could pay a high amount of money for a book today, but you would be surprised.
There are a few books out there, old ones mostly, that are valued at super high prices.
This article compiles the 10 most expensive books in the world.
Why are the books on this list so expensive?
At this point, you should be wondering why books are so expensive, to begin with. Of course, there are reasons for this. During the time when these most expensive books in the world were written, there were no computers or printers.
Writers, scribes, journalists, and also monks would have only one chance to make one. If they messed up they would have to start over. They would usually only make a few copies because of the time and patience it took for just one. When buying the books, you would also be paying for the effort used to write them.
During the time when these books were written, there were standards that books were expected to have, which made the work even more stressful. They had to be written in a certain hand, they had to be illuminated, so there you had to have two specialists working on the book, the copyist and the illuminator.
Then there was the binder. In addition, the page material was expensive too, vellum was a valuable material, and a single book could consume skins of a flock of animals. Then the materials for illumination, which had to be sourced from long ways away, and sometimes included silver and gold. A book could take a year to make.
Most of these books were also reserved for the upper class, such as noblemen and the clergy. You can imagine what this would mean for overall literacy rates, as the question correctly states that the average person wasn’t able to read them. These and many more reasons are why the books on this list are the most expensive books in the world.
Features of the Most Expensive Books in the World
The books on this list have some features in common. They are-
- Preeminence: As in life, it pays to be first. Books containing the earliest known mention of a significant character, idea, or theory in print carry great meaning to collectors. Most of these books are this expensive because they are the first of their kind printed in a location, a language, of having a distinct theme.
- A book, being the first of its kind is rare and in constant demand: Demand drives up and as such, this is one of the major reasons why books are so expensive. By the time a popular writer releases their second, third, or fourth novels, they have higher demand and larger edition sizes to match.
- The condition of a book as compared to how many years ago it was written, has a way of driving up its price: However, because bindings didn’t become uniform until the late 19th century, the distinguishing condition is much more relevant in recent editions.
- Collectors generally search for books in their original binding, rather than editions that have been re-bound: Books with original binding are more valuable than books that have been rebound. In this feature, originality speaks for itself.
- The most expensive books in the world have their color plates, maps, or illustrations hundred percent complete in order to reach their full value.
- Provenance is another feature that earnestly drives up the prices of the most expensive books in the world. Signatures and bookplates also add value because they provide evidence of ownership.
- Finally, rarity is another feature that drives up the price of the most expensive books in the world. It matters most if the book has demand, which is driven by all the features listed above.
10 Most Expensive Books in the World
#1. St. Cuthbert Gospel
Price- $14 million
One of the most expensive and historically significant books in the world. This book was originally written in Latin and buried with Saint Cuthbert in 687 but was recovered from the tomb in 1104.
Also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, the book got its popular name from Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, North East England, the man who was buried with the book. St Cuthbert Gospel is considered strong in terms of the material it was made of. It comes in a well-decorated leather that binds the 94 vellum paper – the animal skin or “membrane” used in writing before the advent of civilization.
The book has endured many years and centuries without losing its quality and remains in great condition, a good reason to fork out millions of dollars to gain it. It is one of the most expensive books in the world.
#2. The Bay Psalm Book
Price- $14.165 million
If you have ever wondered what the title of the first book published in the United States could be, it is the Bay Psalm Book, a work of Christian literature initially published in 1640.
The book was produced 20 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and was first owned by the Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts.
This book, even after having gone through different editions, has remained valuable through the years. The Bay Psalm Book has gone through different editions but has remained valuable after many years.
There are arguably eleven surviving copies of the first edition in the world right now and one of them was sold in November 2013.
#3. Rothschild Prayerbook
Price- $13.6 million
First owned by Anselm Salomon von Rothschild and his progeny, the piece is a book of hours – the kind of devotional books used by Christians in the Middle Ages. It was compiled in 1500-20 and comprises 254 folios, with each page measuring 228 × 160 mm.
It is currently on display in the National Library of Australia after Australian businessman Kerry Stokes bought it at Christie’s auction in New York. With a whopping price of $13.6 million, it is undoubtedly one of the most expensive books in the world.
#4. The Gospels of Henry the Lion
Price- $11.7 million
Originally published in 1984, The Gospels of Henry the Lion had been around long before then. It was commissioned by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony around 1129/1131–1195. He intended it for use in Brunswick Cathedral at the altar of the Virgin Mary in the church of St. Blaise’s Abbey.
The church in Brunswick was built in 1173 while its altar of the Virgin Mary was dedicated in 1188. Thus, the creation of the gospel book is dated around the same period.
Before Bill Gates acquired the Codex Leicester, a manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci, Gospels of Henry the Lion held the rank of the world’s most expensive book.
#5. Birds of America
Price- $11.5 million
On the pages of the book are colored, life-size prints of birds made from engraved plates. The numerous birds that are represented in the book are now extinct, making it a valuable record of their past existence.
This book also has its price at this amount because of its rarity. There are 120 complete copies of The Birds of America confirmed to be in existence and one of them was owned by Henry Witham but was later purchased by London art dealer, Michael Tollemache, on 6 December 2010.
#6. Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies (First Folio)
Price- $9.98 million (2020)
Written by the great William Shakespeare, this drama piece was originally published in 1623 and contains 900 pages.
The book comes in different editions owned by many historical figures, including Lord Hesketh (1916–1955), Robert Edwards, George Shuckburgh-Evelyn (1751–1804), William Bates (1625–1699), Daniel Williams (c. 1643–1716), and other private collectors. The book was held at Dr. Williams’s Library in London from 1716 until it was sold off to London dealer, Simon Finch Rare Books in 2006.
As of the time of its creation, 750 copies of the First Folio were printed but only 235 can be traced. These copies can be found in either public archives or among private collectors.
#7. Treatise of Fruit-Trees
Original price: $4.5 million
Definitely, the most expensive book ever written about fruit trees (featuring sixteen different varieties), a copy of this lush, five-volume set of illustrations and text sold for about $4.5 million in 2006.
Put together by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau, this book was sold for a whopping $4.6 million in Brussels in 2006.
The ancient five-volume set of illustrations and text contains beautiful paintings of 16 different fruit trees which take credit for the value attached to it. It is definitely one of the most expensive books in the world.
#8. The Northumberland Bestiary
Price- $4.1 million
This book is on the list of the most expensive books in the world for a reason. It had full descriptions of 112 different animals and beasts, with their images. The 13th-century manuscript dates back around 1250–1260.
The miniature animals represented in the piece are inspired by a 1200-1210 bestiary which is currently in the British Library. Alongside each of the pictures of animals are moral tales of the mid-13th century designed to teach readers life lessons.
The 75-page manuscript has been passed down from many owners. The piece was later sold to a private buyer for $4.1 million in 1990 before it was acquired by the current owner.
#9. The First Atlas
Price- $3.9 million
Ranked as the most expensive book with a whopping price of $3.9 million is The First Atlas. It was created by the Greco-Roman Claudius Ptolemy in the early 15th century. In the real sense of it, this book is truly the first modern atlas written around AD 150.
This First Atlas compiles the geographical knowledge of the 2nd-century Roman Empire. The original version of the book was written in Greek but was translated into Arabic in the 9th century and Latin in 1406.
The piece sold for $3.9 million in 2006 is believed to be one of the three copies of the atlas that has survived to date.
#10. Tales of Beedle the Bard
Price- $3.98 million
Before this book, meant to be the same children’s book that figures heavily in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, became a mass-market paperback, J.K. Rowling created seven original copies, each one handwritten and illustrated by Rowling herself. Six were given to friends and editors, but in 2007, one of the seven was put up for auction.
It was snapped up by Amazon.com for a whopping $3.98 million, making it the most expensive modern manuscript ever purchased at auction. The money from the sale of the book was donated to The Children’s Voice charity campaign.
While the original copies are bound in leather and encrusted with semi-precious gems, the story was later turned into a book with a paperback for the regular reader.
While most book lovers will never own a copy of these rare and most expensive books, you never know what rare finds you might stumble across in your closet, at a yard sale, or in your local used book shop.
These most expensive books in the world are truly antiquities.
Frequently Asked Questions
Codex Leicester. Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester,” also known as the “Codex Hammer,” is the most expensive book ever sold. The 72-page linen manuscript includes Leonardo’s thoughts, theories, and observations of the world, like the movement of water, fossils and the luminosity of the moon.
In the world currently, the most expensive books are The First Atlas, Tales of Beedle the Bard, Treatise of Fruit-Trees, and The Bay Psalm Book.
The Declaration of Independence is the rarest book in the world.
The Bible. According to experts, the Bible is the most commonly stolen book. The Holy Bible is available for free at many places of worship, so perhaps there’s less guilt associated with pilfering a copy.
If you have the money, and of course, you must have the money to be interested in these books, you could look up who the current owners of these books are, and offer them a price they cannot resist.
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