In a world where everything is becoming increasingly digitized and where whole reams of information are readily accessible via the internet and electronic libraries, extreme value is still being placed on the humble book. People are willing to pay incredible sums of money just to own and hold a copy of one of these rare, antiquated gems.
$781,000 – Gerardus Mercator’s “Atlas”
A cartographer from France, Mercator was responsible for the first book to be called an “atlas”. His 1595 atlas sold at Sotheby’s auction for an astounding $781,000. Mercator was also famous for coming up with the Mercator projection method of depicting the spherical nature of the earth on a flat map and is a technique that is still used today.
$1.9 million – The 13th Amendment
Not much to say about this one, but it is an incredible piece of history for those lucky enough to see a copy of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution at auction. The document, which declares that all slaves shall be free and was effectively what brought an end to slavery, was even signed by one Abraham Lincoln. High-res here
$3.9 million – Ptolemy’s “Geographia” (aka “Cosmographia”)
The world’s first printed atlas, printed in 1477 and authored by Ptolemy, this went for a large amount of money when it went up for auction in 2006 after the previous owner – a Lord Wardington – died.
$4.7 million – Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau’s “Traité des arbres fruitiers” (“Treatise on Fruit Trees”)
Exactly as it sounds, a five volume set written in the 18th century and entirely about fruit trees, although it does have some great illustrations by Pierre Antoine Poiteau and Pierre Jean François Turpin. This book went on auction in 2006 at Pierre Bergé in Brussels and fetched an incredible price, you have to agree. For your money, you would have gotten illustrations of 16 different species of fruit tree accompanied by detailed scientific text.
$5 million – William Shakespeare’s “Comedies, Histories & Tragedies” or “First Folio”
Most commonly referred to as the First Folio, this is essentially a comprehensive collection of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays and is also known as the “Actor’s Bible” when it comes to performing the works of Shakespeare, as many believe it to be the most accurate when it comes to information on how to perform the plays as the Bard intended. A complete copy was auctioned in 2006 for roughly $5 million, however in mid-2008 a copy was stolen from Durham University in England in 1998 resurfaced because the thief had asked a Shakespeare library in Washington D.C to value the work, with the estimate coming in at around $21.4 million. But as it was not sold for this much, it cannot be placed higher on this list.
$8.8 million – John James Audubon’s “Birds of America”
A collection containing scientific descriptions of birds native to the United States, along with paintings and drawings to accompany the descriptions, this was naturalist John James Audubon’s cultural masterpiece. A copy was sold at auction in 2000, fetching the princely sum of $8.8 million and as this book was made using prints fashioned from engraved plates, this book is technically a printed book and thus it still holds the records for the most paid for any single printed book (the top two in this list are hand written/drawn).
$20.1 million/$11.6 million – Gospels of Henry the Lion
Although sources seem to vary the price, it is still in the top two most expensive books ever to be sold. This work of art was commissioned by Henry the Lion, then Duke of Saxony, in around 1188. The work was to be completed by monks of the Benedictine Helmarshausen Abbey to be placed on the altar at Brunswick Cathedral. The gospel book itself contains 266 hand written pages, with 50 of them being full page illustrations (lavishly decorated with gold leaf and full color), an almost unheard of amount for hand written books at the time. The book went on auction in 1983 and a number of foundations and private donors pooled their resources to come up with the money to keep the treasure in Germany.
$30.8 million – Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester”
The Codex is comprised of a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific writings and drawings and is arguably the most famous of all of da Vinci’s scientific journals. This most important of scientific and cultural treasures was previously owned by a wealthy collector by the name of Armand Hammer (when the Codex was named the Codex Hammer). However, in 1994, Microsoft founder Bill Gates bought it at a record price when it went to auction, making it the most expensive book/collection in the history of everything, ever. He then renamed it the Codex Leicester (presumably in honor of Thomas Coke, the later Earl of Leicester that purchased the Codex in 1717).