Million Dollar Babies– 5 of the Most Expensive Books Ever Sold

The chances of a hidden gem being found in a reading library are slim; however, there are some books that are extremely valuable. This lot of antique books from the 1800s sold for $30 in February 2019.

The most difficult thing for a book appraiser is explaining to an heir that an inherited library of 150-year-old novels has very little monetary value. Most titles, especially famous ones, are reprints. And there are millions and millions of old books. Unless your ancestor was a rare book collector who searched for particular editions, the chances of a hidden gem in that reading library are slim, despite what you see on Antiques Roadshow.

However, there are some books that are extremely valuable and many that are worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, like a first printing of a dust-jacketed The Great Gatsby, a book with folding maps printed by Benjamin Franklin, or the first published set of poetry by Edgar Alan Poe. Is it possible that a book could even be worth millions? Surprisingly, yes. In fact, in the last 30 years, several dozen have sold. Here are my favorites, all books that were printed in multiple copies (not hand-written manuscripts).

  1. Bay Psalm Book

A 1640 Bay Psalm Book. Most of the remaining 11 copies have ink notations like this one. Photo credit:

Sold For: $14.2 million in 2013.

What: A translation of the Bible’s Book of Psalms, compiled into a rhythmic structure to be sung or chanted in church. This version was transcribed by a group of 30 Massachusetts Bay Colony ministers and published in 1640.

Why it’s Valuable: It was the first book printed in the Thirteen American colonies.

Who Bought It: Philanthropist David Rubenstein. He sent it on a tour to libraries around the country so that others could see and enjoy it. 

Interesting Note:  It’s the most expensive printed book ever sold.

Numbers: It is estimated that 1,700 original editions were published, but less than a dozen of these first editions are known to still exist. Religious books were usually kept and passed down in families, so I believe there might be a copy lurking in somebody’s attic.

  1. Birds of America by John James Audubon

Trumpeter swan – one of the hand-colored plates from Birds of America. Audubon’s birds were all life-size, so a long-necked swan had to be posed to fit on the double elephant folio page. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Sold For: $11.5 million in 2010.

What: An eight-volume set containing 435 hand-colored life-size prints of the birds of America, published in parts between 1827 and 1838.

Why it’s Valuable: The set was monumental in its undertaking. It is a massive double elephant folio size (39.5 inches tall and 28.5 inches wide) and is collectible for both its beauty and its scientific contribution to ornithology. Audubon’s art is exceptionally detailed and depicts the birds in their natural habitats.

Who Bought It: Anonymous.

Interesting Notes: The set was originally sold to clients as a very expensive subscription (around $15,000 in today’s dollars). It includes 6 now-extinct birds. Another set sold for $7.9 million in 2012.

Numbers: Around 200 original sets were completed and perhaps 120 still exist. This title is the most likely to appear again at auction. Unfortunately, many sets have been taken apart to sell the illustrated plates individually.

  1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

A first edition page from the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales published by William Caxton in 1476. Photo credit: The British Library Board

Sold For: $7.5 million in 1998.

What: A collection of 24 stories written in Middle English from 1387 to 1400 and first published in 1476 by William Caxton.

Why it’s Valuable: Chaucer is considered to be the greatest English poet of his time and this is the first printing of his work. Any book printed in English in the 15th century is rare. Mass printing techniques were not established in Europe until the 1450s and most books were published in Latin, Italian, German or French.

Who Bought It: Billionaire philanthropist John Paul Getty.

Interesting Notes: The selling price in today’s dollars would be over $11 million. The last time this book sold (prior to 1998) was in 1776.

Numbers: Only a dozen Caxton first editions are known to still exist. 

  1. Shakespeare’s First Folio

Shakespeare’s First Folio published in 1623. Photo credit: Folger Shakespeare Library

Sold For: $6.2 million in 2001.

What: A collection of 36 Shakespeare plays published in 1623, seven years after his death.

Why it’s Valuable: It was the first publication of at least 18 of Shakespeare’s plays and is considered to be the most reliable resource for his work because it was compiled by colleagues who had acted for and managed the theater where his plays were staged. It was also the first quality publication and the first in folio size (approximately 13.5 inches tall and 8.5 inches wide.)

Who Bought It: Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.

Numbers: It is estimated that approximately 750 original editions were published and that less than a third of those still exist. Most are in public institutions and many are incomplete.

  1. Gutenberg Bible

A beautiful Gutenberg Bible published in 1455. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Sold For: $5.4 million in 1987.

What: An artistic Latin Bible published in Germany in 1455.

Why it’s Valuable: It is the first book printed in Europe using movable type, on a press invented by Johannes Gutenberg. It revolutionized printing in the Western Hemisphere.

Who Bought It:  The Maruzen Company, a Japanese bookseller.

Interesting Note: The selling price in today’s dollars would be over $10 million.

Numbers: It is estimated that approximately 185 were originally printed and less than 50 survive. Unfortunately, many have been taken apart to sell the pages individually.

With the exception of The Canterbury Tales, I’ve been lucky enough to see copies of all of these books in libraries and museums. I was awe-struck at every viewing and so wished I could turn the pages myself, but of course, they were under glass. They are all pretty amazing in their own way. But to think that a book could be worth as much as a masterpiece painting – well that’s pretty amazing in itself.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist and accredited appraiser who specializes in books and collectibles.

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