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Top 10 most expensive books ever sold


With lots of excitement surrounding the Bay Psalm Book that’s coming up for auction at Sotheby’s, this is a good time to step aside and consider the most expensive books that have ever been sold. By saying books, we are including documents and manuscripts, and not just objects published on a press. I would be thrilled just to see any of these books, but imagine bidding for them?

Codex Leicester (pictured above) by Leonardo da Vinci – $30.8 million (sold in 1994)

Bought by Microsoft mogul Bill Gates. A 72-page document (and therefore not a printed book), Codex Leicester is a collection of scientific writing and gained its named from Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester who bought it in 1719. The journal covers theories on astronomy, water, rock, air, the moon and the heavens.

2 Magna Carta – $21.3 million (sold in 2007)

Bought by American financier David Rubenstein at a Sotheby’s auction. A 1297 copy of the historic document, this was handwritten and has the seal of King Edward I.  The Magna Carta was issued in 1215 by England’s feudal barons to limit the power of the King.

St Cuthbert Gospel (pictured right) – $14.3 million (sold in 2012)

Bought by the British Library. The St Cuthbert Gospel is a tiny leather-bound Latin gospel book from the 7th century that remains in remarkable condition. A very special piece of Anglo-Saxon history. If only all books lasted as well as this one.

4 The Gospels of Henry the Lion – $8.1 million (sold in 1983)

Bought by a German collective including the German government. The Gospels of Henry the Lion was the world’s most expensive book until Bill Gates opened his wallet in 1994. This illuminated masterpiece was produced for the Brunswick Cathedral by the Duke of Saxony late in the 12th century. It contains 50 full page illustrations.

5 The Birds of America (pictured right) by John James Audubon – $11.5 million (sold in 2010)

Bought by London art dealer Michael Tollemache. One of only 120 complete copies. This book was first owned by Henry Witham who subscribed to Audubon’s masterpiece. Birds of America was published in parts between 1827 and 1838, and contains stunning hand-colored, life-size illustrations.

6 The Birds of America by John James Audubon – $8.8 million (sold in 2000)

Bought by Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar at auction.

7 The Birds of America by John James Audubon – $7.9 million (sold in 2012)

Bought by an unknown buyer. Another complete copy.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer – $7.5 million (sold in 1998)

Published in 1477 by William Caxton, the pioneering English printer, this is one of only 12 known first ‘printed’ edition copies.

9 Shakespeare First Folio – $6.1 million (sold in 2001)

Published in 1623, Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies is a collection of the Bard’s 36 plays. I’m sure you are familiar with this writer’s significance.

10 Les Liliacees (pictured below) by Pierre-Joseph Redoute – $5 million (1985)

Bought by a syndicate led by art dealer W. Graham Arader. This was Empress Josephine’s copy of the botanical gem featuring 468 watercolors of flowers on vellum. Sixteen volumes, published between 1802 and 1816.

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Richard Davies

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