Source: William Widmer for The New York Times

Rare Books: The Most Expensive Books and Manuscripts Ever Sold

Survival — of books, and of the rare-book business itself — is a particular art. Alongside Monet paintings, rare books and manuscripts ranging from first edition religious texts to Leonardo da Vinci’s notes are considered some of the most prized collectibles in the world. Provided the texts are kept in good condition, rare and historically significant texts offer affluent collectors the opportunity to own a piece of history, be it literary, religious, or political history. With some books dating back hundreds of years, we take a look into some of the most expensive books and manuscripts ever sold.

8. Shakespeare’s First Folio

Published in 1623, William Shakespeare’s First Folio includes 36 of Bard’s plays including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest and The Twelfth Night. Recognised as one of the most expensive works of literature ever sold, Shakespeare’s First Folio went under the hammer at Christie’s for approximately A$13.8 million to antiquarian, Stephan Loewentheil in 2020. According to Christie’s, only six complete copies are known to be held in private hands and the rare complete folio of work dates back to 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Another complete copy was sold for £4.9m or A$9.1 million back in 2001.

Shakespeare's first Folio
Image: William Shakespeare’s First Folio | Source: Christie’s

7. The Canterbury Tales

Considered to be one of the greatest works of Middle English literature, the first edition of The Canterbury Tales sold for an incredible £4.6 million in 1998, or approximately A$15.5 million -accounting for inflation- today. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer, the first edition copy is one of just 12 known to exist and was sold to late billionaire, Sir Paul Getty. Regarded as Chaucer’s magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales features 24 stories in a variety of genres.

Page of The Canterbury Tales
Image: A page from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales | Source: Mental Floss

6. St. Cuthbert Gospel

Believed to have been produced during the seventh century, this copy of the St. Cuthbert Gospel is the oldest intact book in Europe. Sold for £9 million, or approximately A$16.8 million, to the British Library in London, the pocket-sized Anglo-Saxon manuscript is more than 1,300 years old. Adjusting for inflation, the eye-watering sale price of the St. Cuthbert Gospel in 2012 is estimated to sit at around A$20 million today.

5. The Rothschild Prayerbook

Considered the most significant illuminated manuscripts in the world, The Rothschild Prayerbook was purchased for a cool US$13.6 million, or approximately A$18.8 million, from Christie’s in 2015. The buyer was none other than Western Australian mining and media tycoon, Kerry Stokes, who has an extensive collection of art and antiquities.

The Flemish illuminated manuscript dates back more than 500 years and is filled with incredible illustrations from a number of artists and regarded as a renaissance masterpiece as well as a significant piece of history.

The Rothschild Prayerbook
Image: The Rothschild Prayerbook | Source: Christie’s

4. Magna Carta

Just one of 17 known to exist, the last remaining copy of the Magna Carta sold for US$21.321 million at Sotheby’s in 2007. In line with US inflation, this would bring the price to US$28.5 million or approximately, A$39.6 million. Sold to Washington businessman, David Rubenstein, the Magna Carta sets out the foundation of individual rights in Anglo-American jurisprudence and dates back more than 800 years.

According to an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Rubenstein told reporters he believed the three most important documents in Western civilization were the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and believes it was very important to have the Magna Carta remain in the US.

The Magna Carta
Image: The Magna Carta | Source: Sotheby’s

3. Book of Mormon

Bought by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon sold for approximately A$48.3 million in 2017. The manuscript is one of the most expensive ever sold and is a handwritten copy of the original manuscript which was passed on to the printer, E. B. Grandin in New York in 1830 to set the type for the first edition Book of Mormon. The manuscript was previously owned by the Community of Christ.

The Book of Mormon
Image: Printer’s manuscript of The Book of Mormon | Source: Smithsonian Magazine

2. First edition copy of the US Constitution

The first printing of the final text of the US Constitution sold at Sotheby’s in 2021 for a record-breaking price. Fetching approximately A$59.6 million, the rare copy of the Constitution is the most expensive historical document ever sold. Previously owned by philanthropist, Dorothy Tapper Goldman, the incredibly rare document was sold to the founder of Citadel, Ken Griffin, who told media he bought the piece of history because his son urged him to.

Image: First edition copy of the US Constitution | Source: Sotheby’s

1. The Codex Leicester

Sold to Bill Gates for over A$30 million in 1994, the Codex Leicester or Codex Hammer is the only notebook of Leonardo da Vinci’s owned in private hands today. Written in da Vinci’s mirror-style writing, the manuscript is filled with the artist and scientist’s ideas and diagrams, including his musings on the physics of water, and dates back to the 16th century. Accounting for inflation, the auction price of the Codex Leicester would come to around A$72 million today.

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