The next time you think the price of the book you’re reading is a little steep, just know that literary collectors and mega-millionaires drop fortunes on priceless and rare books to add to their personal libraries.
For bibliophiles, collecting the most expensive books in the world is a pricey proposition, but it’s an investment that is likely to see a return. Who knows, it’s possible you could have such a hidden source of income lying around your house.
'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll
Published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” spurred a literary series that has endeared fans of every generation. Carroll’s work of elaborate fantasy has been adapted into many languages, animated movies, live-action movies, TV shows, toys, music and art. When a supremely rare and surprisingly intact copy of the 23 remaining 2,000 first editions of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” surfaced for auction at Christie’s in 2016, it was estimated to fetch between $2 and $3 million.
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‘Biblia Pauperum’ carries the distinction of being one of the oldest block-books with the most remaining copies. To that end, the text’s abundance doesn’t do much for its auction price, but one of the three known complete copies sold in 2002 for $475,938.
Originally thought to have been prepared for the poor and illiterate, the book was intended to harmonize the Old and New Testaments and represents 40 biblical events. The copy is printed on one side of the paper and organized so the printed sides are facing one another.
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'Birds of America' by John James Audubon
It stands to reason that a book authored by the preeminent authority on all things avian would fetch a large sum at the auction block. In 2010, the first edition of Audubon’s four-volume “Birds of America” sold for $11.5 million, easily making it one of the most expensive books sold. When opened, the books are more than four feet long and contain hand-colored, lifesize illustrations of 435 species of North American birds. Since its printing between 1827 and 1838, it’s believed that just 13 complete sets remain in private hands.
'The Canterbury Tales' by Geoffrey Chaucer
Chaucer wrote his masterpiece about a group of pilgrims on their way from London to Canterbury in the 14th century. The first edition was printed in 1477 and only 12 copies remain in existence. In 1998, a first edition that was originally purchased during an auction in 1776 for £6 was put up for auction and only expected to fetch $830,650. The book ended up selling for about $7.5 million at the time at Christie’s in London.
'Codex Leicester' by Leonardo da Vinci
The most iconic and famous of Leonardo da Vinci’s 30 remaining scientific journals, the “Codex Leicester” is a 72-page notebook filled with the genius’ handwritten musings, 300 or so sketches and theories on everything from water currents and botany to engineering, math and what makes the moon glow. The manuscript was written between 1506 and 1510, and it’s named after Thomas Coke, who later became the Earl of Leicester. Coke purchased it in 1717 and, after changing hands once more, it was purchased in 1994 by Bill Gates for it $30.8 million.
'De Humani Corporis Fabrica' by Andreas Vesalius
When translated from Latin, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” means the fabric of the human body, and when the original was released in 1543, Andreas Vesalius sparked a scientific revolution with his human anatomical illustrations drawn in classical poses. In 2011, a complete edition, which included three full-page skeleton drawings and 14 full-page muscle-men, sold for $412,751 at Christie’s in London.
'The First Book of Urizen' by William Blake
Originally printed in 1794, “The First Book of Urizen” is one of the major pieces in William Blake’s body of prophetic works. Its subject is intricately woven into the Bible and its original layout closely resembles the Bible’s printing style of double columns of text, a division of chapters and verses.
In 1999, one of only eight known surviving copies was sold at Sotheby’s for $2.5 million to a private collector. The copies are all hand-printed, bound and sewn like a loose-leaf notebook, and each contains beautiful and intricate illustrations that make no two copies of the books alike.
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'Geographia Cosmographia' by Claudius Ptolemy
The precursor to Google Maps, “Geographia Cosmographia” is the world’s first printed atlas. Ptolemy was a geographer and astronomer working in Ancient Rome, and his book of maps directly challenged the principals of cartography at the time. It wasn’t until medieval mapmakers found Ptolemy’s sketches and translated them into a book. Although many of Ptolemy maps are incorrect, he’s still associated with the idea of incorporating mathematics and measurement into mapmaking.
In 2006, Ptolemy’s 1477 “Geographia Cosmographia” sold at Sotheby’s for almost $4 million.
'The Gospel of Henry the Lion' by the Order of Saint Benedict
Considered one of the greatest Romanesque medieval masterpieces, “The Gospel of Henry the Lion” is a gospel book created in 1174 by a Benedictine monk named Herimann. In 1983, the West German government laid out $11.7 million at Sotheby’s for the 226-page book. Even at eight centuries old, the book’s vibrant illustrations are still in vivid colors of crimson, blue, green and untarnished silver.
Wars have been waged over the contents of the Gutenberg Bible, but it was the first book to be printed with a technology that would revolutionize publishing — Johannes Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press. Before Gutenberg, copies of books were tediously transcribed by hand. After Gutenberg’s invention sometime in the 1450s, books and information were able to be distributed at a rapid rate. Literary scholars believe that 180 or so copies were printed in the original run and only 48 copies survive today. Given its societal significance and scarcity, the last Gutenberg Bible up for auction was in 1987 when it sold for $4.9 million, which in today’s dollars is roughly equal to $10.7 million.
'Les Liliacées' by Pierre-Joseph Redouté
Hailed as a masterpiece of botanical illustration, “Les Liliacées” is 468 watercolors on vellum that depict the flowers in the French gardens of Malmaison, St. Cloud, Versailles and Sevres, and all 16 volumes tip the scales at 320 pounds. Made between 1802 and 1816, Redouté’s original fetched $5.5 million at Sotheby’s in 1985.
A masterpiece and relic from the Renaissance, the “Rothschild Prayerbook” is considered one of the finest illuminated manuscripts from the late 15th and early 16th century. The book’s pages are filled with 67 full-page miniatures, elaborate floral schemes and biblical and mythical creatures.
In 2014, the book was on the auction block again and it was anticipated to break its own 1999 sales record for $13.3 million. Although the price for the text did surpass the last sale — it went for $13.6 million — it probably wasn’t by as much as expected.
'The Tales of Beedle the Bard' by J.K. Rowling
Muggles and wizards around the world were saddened by the series conclusion of “Harry Potter.” Not considered a sequel, author J.K. Rowling described “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” as “a distillation of the themes found in the Harry Potter books” while still being referential because the book’s title was mentioned in the final “Potter” book.
To add to the hype, just seven copies of the book were handwritten, bound in Moroccan leather and bejeweled with an ominous silver skull and decorated with moonstones. Rowling gifted six of the copies and allowed the remainder to be auctioned in 2007. The winning bid was placed by none other than Amazon to the tune of $3.98 million. All proceeds of the sale went to Rowling’s charity, Children’s Voice.
'Traité des Arbres Fruitiers' by Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau
When translated from French, the title means “Treatise of Fruit Trees,” and it is considered one of the most important botanical books of the 18th century. The original edition was published in 1768 and contains engraved illustrations of 181 fruit trees with exacting specificity and detail. Duhamel’s tome sold for $4.5 million in 2006.
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Erica Corbin contributed to the reporting for this article.
Photos are for illustrative purposes only. As a result, some of the photos might not reflect the books listed in this article.