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Top 10 Most Expensive Books

Updated on May 30, 2014
CC Image, Abhi Sharma
CC Image, Abhi Sharma | Source

10. Les Liliacees - $5.5 Million

The “Les Liliacees” is a sixteen volume book consisting of 468 watercolours on vellum by the Belgian painter and botanist Pierre-Joseph Redoute. It captures the flowers of the gardens of Malmaison, St Cloud, Versailles and Sevres1. These were painted for the French Empress Josephine de Beauharnais (first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte), who was Redoute’s patron.

The Empress’s copy of Les Liliacees was auctioned in 1985 by Sotheby’s with a starting bid of $5 million the highest opening bid in an art auction. Jane Wyeth, a member of Sothby’s staff placed the bid on behalf of a Mr Arader who split the collection into a 100 shares (valued at $63,250 each) selling 70 shares and holding on to 30. Of the forty five registered bidders in attendance at the auction on the day, no one participated. Mr Arader won the bid at $5 million, finalising the transaction at $5.5 million (with10% buyer’s commission). He believes he walked away with a bargain2.


9. Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies - $6.1 Million

Also known as the “First Folio”, this is the first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays to be compiled and published. The edition was edited by two of Shakespeare’s closest friends and actors John Heminge and Henry Condell, who supervised the entire printing process and was released 7 years after Shakespeare’s death. At the time the Folio would have been sold unbound costing just 1 Pound. Purchasers could pay extra to have it bound and decorated simply or elaborately as they preferred3.

Around 750 to 800 copies are thought to have been initially printed with 232 still in existence today. The folio is one of the most valuable printed books in the world with a copy of it selling for $6.1 million in 20012.


8. The Canterbury Tales - $7.5 Million

“The Canterbury Tales” is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer during the time of the 100 Years War in England at the end of the 14th century. It consists of over 20 stories (mostly written in verse, and some prose) using Middle English. The story follows a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury Cathedral where an Inn keeper suggests that each traveller must tell two stories to help pass the time and the best story will get a free meal at the inn at the end. The tales introduce characters from all corners of 15th century society giving Chaucer the chance to speak in many different voices. It is unique in that is uses vernacular English rather than French or Latin which was the popular norm for writing at the time 5..

The 15th century first edition was purchased at auction by William, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam in March 1776. The trustees of Olive, Countess Fitzwilliam put the book up for auction in 1998 as part of a collection held by the family since before 16416. It fetched approximately $7.5 million7.


7. The Birds of America – $11.5 (highest price)

A book by American naturalist and painter John James Audubon, the books contains large illustrations of a wide variety of birds found in America. There are approximately 119 complete copies known to exist and each one is set to fetch millions8. In fact three copies sold between 2000 and 2012 rank in the top most expensive books in the world at $7.8 million, $8.8 million and the most expensive at $11.5 million9.


6. Gospels of Henry the Lion - $11.7 Million

The “Gospels of Henry the Lion” is an illuminated manuscript of four gospels made for Henry the Lion, the Duke of Saxony between 1175 and 118010. The beautiful masterpieces of Romanesque illumination were intended for the altar of the Virgin Mary in Brunswick Cathedral.

The gospels were auctioned in 1983 with the winning bid at approximately $11.7 million11.


5. Rothschild Prayerbook - $13.4 Million

The “Rothschild Prayerbook” is a Flemish manuscript book of hours intricately decorated by a number of artists from about 1500 to 1520. It is thought to be originally made for a member of the Habsburg imperial court in the Netherlands12. The Wittelsbach family owned the manuscript in the 16th century before it was acquire by the Counts Palatine. It remained in their library in Heidelberg till about 1623. It is unknown what happened to it after 1623, but it reappeared in 1868 as part of a collection that passed to the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family13.

The manuscript set a world record on the 8th of July 1999 at $13,400,000, the highest paid for an illuminated manuscript. However, very recently on the 29th of January 2014, the manuscript went up for auction again with a final realised price of $13,605,000 which still keeps it in fifth place on this list14.


4. Bay Psalm Book - $14.2 Million

The “Bay Psalm Book” is the first book to be printed in British North America in 1640. Published merely twenty years after the Pilgrim’s arrival at Plymouth there are eleven known copies of the fist edition still in existence of which only five copies are complete15.

Prices for the individual copies have varied depending on the year of publication, in one case reaching $151,000. However on the 26th of November 2013 the billionaire and philanthropist David Rubenstein (yes him again) acquired a 1640 copy (one of 1,700 originally printed) auctioned by Sotheby’s for $14,165,000, which set a new world record for any “printed” book. Rubenstein plans to loan it out to libraries across the US16.


3. St Cuthbert Gospel - $14.3 Million

The “St Cuthbert Gospel” is one of the smallest (5.1 in x 3.6 in) surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts containing a copy of the Gospel of Saint John. Written in Latin it dates back to the 7th century and derives its name from Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfame whose tomb it was placed in when he was re-interred at Lindisfame in 69817.

The British Library secured the gospel in 2012 at approximately $14.3 million after conducting the largest fundraising campaign in the library’s history. The manuscript is highly prized as it is the only high-status manuscript in existence from the period and has maintained it’s beautifully worked leather binding in excellent condition18.


2. Magna Carta - $21.3 Million

The “Magna Carta”, also referred to as “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England” was the first document imposed upon a King of England by his subjects in a bid to limit the King’s powers and protect their rights by law. The original was scripted in Latin and sealed under oath by King John at Runnymede on 15th June 121519.

In 2007 billionaire and philanthropist David Rubenstein won the bid for the only exemplified copy of the Magna Carta (the 1279 version endorsed by King Edward I, “Perot Magna Carter”)20 in the United States for approximately $21.3 million. The reason for Rubenstein’s bid was purely to stop the document from being taken overseas and keeping it in the Washington Archives, where it had previously been on display21.


1. Codex Leicester - $30.8 Million

The “Codex Leicester” is the original and only copy of a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo de Vinci. It is named after Thomas Coke, the 1st Earl of Leicester (fifth creation) who purchased the Codex during his travels in 171722.

Bill Gates purchased the Codex on the 11th of November 1994 from Christie’s auction house in New York for a record $30,802,50023. He had the pages scanned into digital image files, which were later included as screen saver and wallpaper files for Windows 95. Complete digitals versions are now also available online24 as well as the original going on display once a year in a different city around the world.

The Codex was for a brief period between 1980 and 1994 also referred to as “Codex Hammer” after the name of the millionaire who owned it during that time22.


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    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      5 years ago from California

      Amazing article. Beautifully researched and written.


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