Ballpark Estimate: $3.4 million to almost $44 million
If you are a true collector of rare books and manuscripts, then you probably realize you can’t put a dollar amount on the personal pleasure you will get from owning a piece of true literature and/or history. But the reality is that the prices to buy a rare piece can be extremely steep, since the finest items are in the highest demand. So if you have the money to spare and you are willing to spend whatever it takes, then you might just be to add one of the most coveted pieces to your own personal library.
Top 10 Book and Manuscript Sales
Many of the most valuable and historical books that have sold in the past few decades have transferred hands by auction. Some of the bidding has gone into the millions as people compete to own unusual works of literature and art and rare first editions. From presidential correspondence to ancient religious illustrations, there is something out there for almost anyone’s tastes. Here is a sampling of some of the most expensive sales that have been completed in recent years-
10. Abraham Lincoln Letter
A letter written in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln recently set a record for the highest price ever fetched by a presidential manuscript. This document was written by Lincoln in response to a petition signed by 195 children who asked the president to free all young slaves in the United States. Lincoln replied that he was touched by this request and although did not have the power to grant their wish, he reminded them that God did have the will to do this. This manuscript was put up for sale by the Dr. Robert Small Trust and was sold at auction by Sotheby’s to a private collector. The final selling price for this rare piece of history was $3.4 million.
9. Vita Christi Manuscript
A very old and very unusual English manuscript containing more than 100 hand-painted pictures illustrating the life of Christ recently sold at auction. Called the Vita Christi, this rare work of art was created in two different eras. The first batch of about half of the small drawings are thought to originate from the end of the twelfth century, while a second round of miniatures is said by experts to have been added in the late fifteenth century, completing the final work. This piece was recently sold by Sotheby’s in London to a German collector, who paid $3.5 million for it.
8. The Tales of Beedle the Bard
J.K. Rowling has earned world-wide fame for her famous Harry Potter series, so it may come as no surprise that one of her manuscripts is included in this top 10 list. Yet it is not one of the actual Harry Potter books itself that sold recently, but a copy of her book,The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which is a hand-written manuscript that she created on fine Italian paper with silver and moonstone embellishments. The Beedle Bard manuscript is mentioned in her book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, making is something many Potter fans would love to own. Insiders say that Rowling made seven copies of the manuscript, six earmarked for people closest to her and her career, while the seventh was donated to a charity auction to benefit Children’s Voice, which is a charity she helped found in 2005. This unusual piece sold for $3.98 million.
Another very old, and very rare, book is a copy of the first atlas ever printed. This dates back to 1477 and is called Cosmography. The work is based on the research of a Greek mathematician, geographer and astronomer named Ptolemy who lived in the second century. What makes this book, as well as other early atlases, particularly valuable is the fact that each map contained was etched onto a printing plate by hand. Only two copies of this book remain in the hands of private collectors today. One of them last sold in 2006 for $4 million, which when adjusted for inflation equals more than $4.2 million today.
6. Traité des Arbres Fruitiers
Want to learn all there is to know about fruit trees? Then you might be interested inTraité des arbres fruitiers (which means Treatise on Fruit Trees), which is a five volume book written by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau around 1750. The book includes illustrations of 16 different species of fruit trees and gives a very detailed overview of each in the text. The series sold at auction in 2006 for $4.5 million, which today translates to about $4.7 million.
5. First Folio: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies
Since William Shakespeare is one of the world’s greatest playwrights, it is only fitting that his work be included in this list. In fact, his First Folio: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, which was published in 1623 several years after his death, is indeed a record setter for the price it received at auction in 2006. This manuscript includes more than a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays, including some of his best-known classics, as well as a handful of stories that have never even been made public. Only 750 copies of this book were ever made and this copy is one of the few that is left in private collectors’ hands. While this work originally sold for 20 shillings, today it is worth close to $5.5 million, when you adjust the 2006 price of $5.2 million that it earned at auction through Sotheby’s of London.
4. Birds of America
Artist and author James Audubon’s four-volume Birds of America was instrumental in introducing people around the world to the range of birds that exist in nature. With more than 400 paintings of different species, Audubon used these illustrations to create hand-painted engraved plates that were sold as sets between 1827 and 1838. The complete work, which is compiled in a rare bound folio format, was sold at auction in New York in 2000 for $8.8 million. When adjusted for inflation, this equals close to $11 million today.
3. Magna Carta
A manuscript of the Magna Carta, or the “Great Charter” that was first issued in 1215 to define people’s individual rights and freedoms under English law was sold at auction by Sotheby’s New York recently. This document was set forth during King John’s reign. Owned by the Ross Perot Foundation, this was the only copy still in private hands today. It was bought by David Rubinstein of the Carlyle Group, who wanted to return it to the National Archives, where it has been displayed in the past. The final selling price was $21.3 million for this unusual slice of history.
2. Gospels of Henry the Lion
One of the most expensive books in the world is the Gospels of Henry the Lion, which experts think dates back to about 1188. This ancient work is 266 pages long and includes four gospels and 50 miniature paintings, which document Henry’s quest for power as the ruler of Brunswick. This manuscript was written by the Monks of the Benedictine monastery Helmarshausen at Henry’s request. This chronicle of Henry’s career changes hands most recently in 1983, when it was sold through Sotheby’s London for $12 million. Today, this translates to almost $25.5 million.
1. Codex Leicester
Leonard Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester holds the record as the most expensive book ever sold to date. This journal contains the famous artist’s notes about the link between art and science and is illustrated with his drawings and sketches to support his observations. The manuscript is handwritten in Italian on 18 separate sheets of paper that are folded in half and double-sided to create a 72-page document. In 1994, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, purchased this highly-sought after item. The selling price at that time was $30.8 million. Today, this is comparable to almost $44 million. Gates shares this work of art with the rest of the world each year by putting it up for display in different locations. He also had some of the sketches scanned in and recreated digitally in order to use them as screensavers and wallpaper through Microsoft Windows, so the images can be enjoyed by a broader audience.