The most expensive books ever sold

Written by Laura | 15th April 2020

The world of print has come under pressure in recent years, with the rise of ebooks and digital reading. But nothing beats the look and feel of a paperback and there's reason to be hopeful yet that people are revisiting the joy of physical books. Some books, in particular, have matched their literary worth with a price tag. In fact, these are some of the most expensive ever sold. 

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling only created seven copies of this children’s book first mentioned in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Each edition is handwritten and illustrated by the author herself, bound in brown leather and decorated with silver and moonstones. Sadly for the general public, six of the seven original copies she gave to friends and editors. The seventh copy, however, was auctioned for 3.6 million Euros, which makes it the most expensive modern manuscript ever. 

The Tales of Beedle the Bard was first referenced in the last Harry Potter book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 

The Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible, also known as the 42-line Bible, was the first book printed to use mass-produced movable metal type in Europe – a popular printing method of the 19th century. With around 180 original copies made, only 48 have survived and just 31 remain in perfect condition. One of these copies was sold for a staggering 4.6 million Euros in auction back in 1987. 

This book sold for 4.6 million Euros in auction

First Folio, William Shakespeare

Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies or simply The First Folio is a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and was printed in 1623, only seven years after his death. From 750 original copies, only around 228 remain today. Deemed as the most enduring work in English literature, the remaining copies are the some of most sought-after books among book collectors around the globe. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and evidently an avid reader, spent 5.6 million Euros on one in 2001. 

The First Folio is widely sought after by book collectors the world over

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

A dozen copies of the first edition of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer printed in 1477 are scattered around the world today. The last remaining copy owned by a private collector was purchased by Earl Fitzwilliam for only €6.80 in 1776. It's hard to have imagined back then that the copy would later be sold in auction in 1998 for 7 million Euros. 

The last remaining privately owned copy was initially bought for just under seven Euros in 1776

Birds of America, James Audubon

There are only 119 existing complete first edition copies of the Birds of America. One of the four-volume sets was sold in auction in 2010 for a whopping 10.8 million Euros. Two other first edition copies were sold; one in 2000 for 8.3 million Euros and the other in 2012 for 7.4 million Euros. 

First editions of Birds of America have consistently been valued in the millions

Rothschild Prayer Book

Also called Rothschild Hours, the Rothschild Prayer Book is a Flemish illuminated manuscript book of hours (a popular type of Christian book complete with prayers and psalms). The manuscript was compiled by several artists circa 1500 CE and has 254 folios. It was purchased in 1999 for 12.6 million Euros, which broke the record for most expensive illuminated manuscript in the world. 

When this book sold, it became the most expensive illuminated manuscript in the world

Bay Psalm Book

The Bay Psalm Book is probably best known for being the first printed book in British North America and it was first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rumour has it that there are only 11 copies of the book remaining, one of which was sold at auction in 2013 for 13.4 million Euros.

Rumour has it only 11 copies of the book remain

St Cuthbert Gospel

The St Cuthbert Gospel or Stonyhurst Gospel is a pocket gospel book written in Latin from the 8th century. What makes this book unique is that it's one of the first examples of bookbinding in the world. It sold in auction in 2012 for 13.4 million Euros. 

This book set a precedence for book-binding around the world 

Magna Carta (original exemplar) 

The Magna Carta, also known as Magna Carta Libertatum, is a charter drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and agreed to by King John of England, to make peace between him and a group of rebellious barons. In 2007, an original copy of the Magna Carta was purchased at auction for 20.1 million Euros. The buyer is rumoured to be David Rubenstein. 

The Magna Carta has become a symbol of liberty for the British

The Codex Leicester, Leonardo da Vinci

This 72-page notebook is perhaps the most famous of Da Vinci’s scientific journals. It contains handwritten musings and theories on a wide variety of topics, such as the movement of water, why the moon glows and even fossils. In 1717, the manuscript was purchased for the first time by Thomas Coke, who later became Earl of Leicester, hence the name of the manuscript. In 1980, the manuscript fell into the hands of art collector Armand Hammer. In 1994, however, the journal was purchased by no other than Bill Gates himself, who paid 29 million Euros for it – making this manuscript the most expensive book ever sold. 

At 72 pages, this is arguably the briefest book sold in the millions too


Keep an eye on our weekly books auctions. Or have a rustle around in your attic for a first edition book and  register as a seller with Catawiki.

Discover more Books | Old & Rare Books

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