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. Apparently, they are like wine that gets better with age. John James Audubon’s Birds of America has sold several copies at record prices, with the highest pegged above $11 million, and there are several other books with more jaw-dropping price tags on them.
If you are feeling ‘guaped’ with a lot of extra cash to spare, but you don’t know what to spend it on, you can buy one of these most expensive books in the world to adorn your shelves. On a different note, you can go through your collection of books. Who knows, you might be in possession of a valuable piece that would turn you into a millionaire overnight.
This list comprises the most expensive books to have ever sold with the prices adjusted for inflation in 2019 value.
These Are The Most Expensive Books Right Now
1. The First Atlas
- Original price: $3.9 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $4.91 million
Originally created by the Greco-Roman Claudius Ptolemy in the early 15th century, this pricey book is not called The First Atlas for the sake of it. It is actually the first modern atlas written around AD 150. The book has several other names, including Cosmographia, Geographia, or The Geography. 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.
Ptolemy’s First Atlas was a revision of a lost atlas by Marinus of Tyre and he employed Roman and Persian gazetteers, as well as new principles to compile the book. 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. Claudius Ptolemaeus, who also went by the name Ptolemy was a Greek astronomer, geographer, and mathematician.
2. Tales of Beedle the Bard
- Original price: $3.98 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $4.89 million
If a modern author would make the list of most expensive books in the world right now, it just has to be J. K. Rowling. The British author might be known for her Harry Potter book series but they are apparently not her most expensive works. The children’s book aficionado created seven original copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, handwritten and manually illustrated by the author herself. She gave out six copies to friends and editors while the last copy fetched $3.98 million at a 2007 charity auction. The pricey piece was acquired by Amazon.com at a record price as the most expensive modern manuscript ever sold at an auction.
The sales didn’t make Rowling richer as she donated everything to her children’s charity The Children’s Voice charity campaign (Lumos). One of the original copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard emerged on the market in 2016 and sold for $467,000. 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. This edition can be acquired for as low as $6 on Amazon. J.K Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard was published for public consumption on December 4, 2008.
3. The Northumberland Bestiary
- Original price: $4.1 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $7.97 million
Northumberland Bestiary contains descriptions of 112 different animals and beasts with their images. The 13th-century manuscript dates around 1250-1260. Miniature animals represented in the piece are inspired by a 1200-1210 bestiary which is currently in the British Library (Royal MS 12 C XIX). Hydras, satyrs, goats, elephants, donkeys, panthers, and apes are perfectly illustrated on the pages of the book. Alongside each of the pictures of animals are moral tales of the mid-13th century designed to teach readers life lessons. The animals illustrated on the pages of the book are a combination of real and imaginary beings.
The 75-page manuscript has been passed down to many owners but was originally held by a gentleman named Robert Turges, a resident of Melcombe Regis, Dorset, around 1508-1509. Grace Fitzjames became the next owner before the Duke of Northumberland inherited it, hence the current name. The piece was later sold to a private buyer for $4.1 million in 1990 before it was acquired by the current owner – the J. Paul Getty Museum. the museum bought it in June 2007.
4. Treatise of Fruit-Trees
- Original price: $4.5 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $5.8 million
This might just be the most expensive book about fruit trees you have ever seen or will ever see. Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau put the piece together in the 18th century while Pierre Antoine Poiteau and Pierre Jean François Turpin handled the illustrations. You might consider it boring but Treatise of Fruit-Trees 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.
Considered to be culturally important, different editions of the book have been made but they remain true to the original work. The wealth of knowledge contained in the 18th-century piece is considered the base of civilization and the ever-growing technology as we know it.
5. The Gospels of Henry the Lion
- Original price: $11.7 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $29.86 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. Authorities placed it at about 1175 but further review of the date puts it at about 1188.
Now held at the Herzog August Library, the German government at Sotheby’s of London purchased the original piece for £8,140,000 on December 6, 1983. The sale contains 266 pages of the manuscript with text and illustrations. The illustrations make up 50 full pages. The gospel book is currently held at Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel where it only gets to be exposed once in 2 years to preserve its antiquity. 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. Gates purchased the pricey da Vinci piece at Christie’s auction house, New York, on 11th November 1994, for US$30,802,500.
6. Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies (First Folio)
- Original price: $9.98 million (2020)
- Inflation-adjusted price: $10 million
Authored 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.
Though modern scholars prefer to use the shorter title First Folio, the book was originally dubbed Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Hundreds of years after publishing the masterpiece, the First Folio still holds its rank among the most influential books in the world right now. It is possibly the only reliable text confirming Shakespeare’s works published in quarto before 1623. 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. St. Cuthbert Gospel
- Original price: $14 million (2012)
- Inflation-adjusted price: $16 million
This is one of the surviving books in the world today with a rich historical background. The early 8th-century pocket gospel book was originally written in Latin and buried with Saint Cuthbert in 687 but was recovered from the tomb in 1104. Also known as Stonyhurst Gospel, the book got its popular name from Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, North East England, the man who was buried with the book. Following the removal of the book, the St Cuthbert Gospel found a new home at Durham Cathedral but was later passed on to Thomas Allen, the English Jesuit College, as well as the British Library.
While it seems Cuthbert owned the book, thus, the reason it was buried with him, further research revealed that the piece may have been written shortly after his death. It is presumed to be a gift from The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Monkwearmouth–Jarrow as the book was written there. One of the smallest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that have remained intact, 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 acquire it.
8. The Bay Psalm Book
- Original price: $14.165 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $15.46 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 Christian literature initially published in 1640. The book was produced 20 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusett, and was first owned by the Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts, before American billionaire businessman David Rubenstein purchased it. The Bay Psalm Book comprises of metrical translations of the Book of Psalms meant to be sung as hymns in a church, making it a metrical psalter.
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. The historical piece set a record by fetching $14.2 million at the auction. Long before that, in 1947 to be precise, a copy of the book was sold at the Parke-Bernet Galleries auction in Manhattan where it fetched $151,000, a very high amount at the time.
9. Rothschild Prayerbook
- Original price: $13.6 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $14.6 million (2013)
Anselm Salomon von Rothschild and his progeny were the first owners of the Rothschild Prayerbook, otherwise known as Rothschild Hours. As the name suggests, the piece is a book of hours – the kind of devotional books used by Christians in the Middle Ages. Book of hours is also one of the surviving illuminated manuscripts from the Medieval period. This copy was compiled in 1500-20 and comprises 254 folios, with each page measuring 228 × 160 mm.
The book was held in the Austrian National Library in Vienna as Codex Vindobonensis S.N. 2844 after it was bought in a 1999 auction sale that set a world record for an illuminated manuscript. This book of hours is now on display in the National Library of Australia after Australian businessman Kerry Stokes bought it at Christie’s auction in New York.
10. Birds of America
- Original price: $11.5 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $13.5 million
Authored and illustrated by John James Audubon, The Birds of America was originally published in 1827. The book was titled The Birds of America; from original drawings by John James Audubon before the name was shortened to what we know today. Written by a naturalist and painter, the book contains different kinds of birds that can be found in the United States but the author did not collect the entirety of the specimens found on the 435 pages by himself. He had help from John Kirk Townsend, who collected some of the specimens during an expedition in 1834. Audubon’s assistant Joseph Mason contributed to the work with some paintings of the plant life around the birds.
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. Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck, great auk, and pinnated grouse are some of the confirmed birds in the book while the Eskimo curlew is a possible addition. 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. Heirs of the Fourth Duke of Portland made the biggest sale of the book at Christie’s, New York when an American collector purchased the copy for $7.9 million. Among the 120 copies of The Birds of America in existence, 107 are under institutions while private collectors are in possession of 13 pieces.
11. The Canterbury Tales
- Original price: $7.5 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $11.69 million
The Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest works in English literature to date but was written in 1392 by Geoffrey Chaucer and originally titled Tales of Caunterbury. It is one of the few storybooks to make the list of the most expensive books in the world. In the book is a compilation of 24 stories put together between 1387 and 1400. Chaucer served in different capacities as Controller of Customs and Justice of Peace, as well as Clerk of the King’s work between 1386 and 1389, during which he commenced work on The Canterbury Tales. The text is mostly written in verses but some are in prose form.
The Tales of Canterbury is regarded as Chaucer’s greatest work among other literary endeavors like Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, and House of Fame. There are suspicions that he couldn’t finish the book before his death. This idea stems from the fact that the prologue indicates that the writer would write 120 stories but what we have today is made up of 24 stories. Notwithstanding, the piece has remained an important contribution to English literature. In 1998, Christie’s, New York sold a first edition of the book for £4.6m to a private collector. Before then, it was bought by the first Earl Fitzwilliam at the sale of John Radcliffe’s library for a mere £6 but this was in 1776. Maggs Bros is now the current owner.
12. Babylonian Talmud
- Original price: $9.3 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $10.84 million
Talmud is a religious text used in Rabbinic Judaism, serving as the primary source of Jewish religious laws and theology and Babylonian Talmud is one of such texts. Galilee and Babylonia are considered the two major centers where Jewish scholars were found. There, two Talmud were created, the first was put together in Galilee, in the 4th century, and called the Jerusalem Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, is a more recent version compiled around the year 500. Thus, when you hear the word Talmud, it is specifically referring to the Babylonian Talmud.
The Babylonian Talmud is made up of the Mishnah and the Babylonian Gemara. The Gemara is the analysis of the Mishnah in the Talmudic Academies in Babylonia dated over 300 years ago. For now, just 14 complete sets printed by Daniel Bomberg have been confirmed to be in existence. The piece on this list was owned by Richard Bruerne, Westminster Abbey, and the Valmadonna Trust Library before Stephan Loewentheil acquired it. The book stayed at Westminster Abbey for about 400 years with little value attached to it. One of the recent buyers who wanted to remain a mystery was later revealed to be an art collector and investor known as Leon Black.
13. The Gutenberg Bible
- Original price: $14.34 (1987)
- Inflation-adjusted price: $12 million
As far back as 1987, $4.9 million was recorded on the sale of a copy of the Gutenberg Bible at Christie’s New York. This is no surprise at all as the piece is regarded as one of the books that impacted positively on the world. It was equally the first book to be printed from movable metal type. The first publication of the book emerged in 1455 in Europe, marking the beginning of an era known as the Gutenberg Revolution. It also ushered in the time of printed books in the western world.
There are just 49 copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the world right now but only 21 of them are complete. One of the incomplete copies was purchased by a Japanese bookseller – Maruzen Company. The sale was made in 1987 and fetched $5.4 million. meanwhile, a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible can be accessed on the University of Texas at Austin website. Another variant of the Bible known as the 36-line Bible is often mistaken for the Gutenberg Bible but they are presumed to be from a different printer.
14. The Magna Carta
- Original price: $21.3 million (2007)
- Inflation-adjusted price: $26.1 million
The piece was originally published in 1215 but the Magna Carta, otherwise known as Magna Carta Libertatum, meaning Great Charter of Freedoms, still commands prominence in modern times. This Magna Carta was created on June 15, 1215, when a royal charter of rights was approved by King John of England at Runnymede. Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton prepared the royal charter in a bid to encourage peace to reign between the king and some rebels. However, the charter was not implemented during the time of King John but his son Henry III brought up the document again in 1216, and with some alterations made, it became a part of the peace treaty after the war in 1217.
To date, Magna Carta represents liberty in many parts of the world. Currently, four illustrations of this document are still in existence. While two copies are held at the British Library, the other two can be found at Lincoln Castle and Salisbury Cathedral respectively.
15. Codex Leicester
- Original price: $30.8 million in 1994
- Inflation-adjusted price: $52.8 million
This valuable piece was manually compiled by Leonardo da Vinci himself but is now in Bill Gates’ possession. The book contains rare scientific writings, the most famous of the great da Vinci’s works in science. Codex Leicester comprises 72 pages of musings and theories that touch different areas, including fossils, movement of water, and the reason behind the moon’s glow.
Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, purchased the piece in 1719 before he became Earl, also influencing the name. The next known owner was art collector Armand Hammer who had it for fourteen years (starting from 1980). However, Bill Gates snagged the masterpiece in 1994 for a hair-raising $30,802,500. In 2019, the value rose to $53,222,898.79.
16. The Book of Mormon (Printer’s Manuscript)
- Original price: $35 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $36.3 million
The printer’s manuscript of the sacred text of the Latter Day Saint movement is apparently one of the most expensive books you can find in the world. It supposedly contains writings of ancient prophets who existed around 2200 BC and AD 421. The first publication of the text was in 1830 when Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint Church, published the text he named The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi.
So far, the book has been translated into 112 languages with over 150 million copies printed. However, a copy of the original manuscript was purchased by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was produced by Oliver Cowdery but originally owned by David Whitmer.
17. The First Book of Urizen
- Original Price $2.50 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $3.8 million
Written and illustrated by William Blake, the original copy of The First Book of Urizen was published in 1794. The English writer has a series of prophetic books and this is arguably the most important of them all. It is also considered a parody of the Book of Genesis. Urizen is a character in Blake’s mythology and in the book, Urizen is described as the “primeaval priest” who separated from the other Eternals, creating his own alienated and enslaving realm of religious dogma.
This piece is one of the remaining eight surviving copies that have been discovered and sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1999. A private collector snagged the piece for $2.5 million but it was owned by John Hay Whitney from 1904 to 1982.
18. Sherborne Missal
- Original Price: $21.21 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $30.6 (2001)
Created in the early 15th century, The Sherborne Missal still remains in good condition to date. The book is an English illuminated missal considered to be the most spectacular of its kind to emerge from the Middle Ages. The missal was used at Sherborne Abbey located in Dorset, England, between 1399 and 1407. Abbot at the Abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Robert Bruyning, commissioned the text at the time.
A Benedictine monk, John Whas, takes credit as the scribe behind the book while the illumination was handled by many people, particularly a Dominican friar named John Siferwas. British birds like cormorants, moorhens, European robins, and gannets, among others, are represented in the drawings. Though previously owned by art enthusiast Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, the British Library bought the Sherborne Missal in 2001.
19. Yongle Encyclopedia
- Original Price: $9.19 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $9.2 million (2020)
The Yongle Encyclopedia was originally published in 1408 but was officially commissioned by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty a few years before that. The 11,095 volumes of the original piece comprise 22,937 chapters. Nonetheless, only 400 volumes of the original work are still in existence. The volumes of the 16th-century piece which was owned by French private collectors was later purchased by Jīn Liàng 金亮 – a Chinese collector from Zhejiang.
Most of the lost volumes of the manuscript were destroyed amid Western attacks and social unrests that marked the 2nd half of the 19th century. Despite losing most of its volumes, the Yongle Encyclopedia remained the largest in that category for many centuries, considering the scope and size, until 2007 when Wikipedia surpassed it.
20. Action Comics 1
- Original Price: $3.21 million
- Inflation-adjusted price: $3.5 million (2014)
Like J.K Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard, there are other published works from recent centuries on the list of most expensive books in the world. Action Comics #1 was published in 1938 by DC Comics and takes credit for the first appearance of Superman and the first edition that started an era of the Action Comics book/magazine series. Action Comics #1 may be the first and most important comic book in the world but it has since birthed others like it. The book series attained 1,000 issues in 2018.
Among the feats recorded by Action Comics #1 is the amount it fetched in an August 24, 2014 sale. This original copy of the comic piece was sold for over $3 million, setting a record yet to be broken as the only original copy of a comic book to fetch such a grand amount.