Rare Books

Most expensive sales in 2021

Welcome to our most expensive sales of the year. AbeBooks' 2021 list includes a rare illustrated book from the Wild West containing a grim reminder that crime doesn’t pay, a letter from a German author whose writing inspired one of the great ballets, life advice from Yoko Ono, and a book that shaped how we invest in the stock market.

AbeBooks' most expensive sales of 2021

Pencil Sketches of Montana by A.E. Mathews - $37,500

Pencil Sketches of Montana
Pencil Sketches of Montana

This book was published in 1868 and copies are hard to find. It contains 31 illustrations by Mathews (1831-1874), who was well known for his drawings of Colorado, Montana and the Rocky Mountains.

The book also had a loose vigilante card (pictured) tucked inside which offers an insight into how Montana ranchers were dealing with cattle rustlers during the Wild West era. The card displays the skull and crossbones, and the numbers 3.7.77.


This copy was owned by Captain Ross Deegan, who was a prominent rancher, and member of the Montana Stock Association of Lewis and Clark County. Cards such as this were given to suspected rustlers as a warning of the consequences of further crimes. The exact meaning of 3.7.77 is unclear. The numbers could be the dimensions of a grave in feet and inches, or a date by which the recipient had to leave town.

Today, this sequence of numbers is visible on the badge of the Montana Highway Patrol as a way of honoring the early pioneers of law enforcement. Montana did not become a US state until 1889 and law enforcement was difficult in the years leading up its admittance to the Union. The book, signed by Deegan, also contained a souvenir menu from a 1905 event, two photos of Captain Deegan, and a Helena Hot Springs and Smelter Railroad Company stock certificate.

The Birds of America by John James Audubon - $36,635

Birds of America
Birds of America

A 1972 facsimile of this historic book published by the Johnson Reprint Corporation in four double elephant folio volumes. Audubon originally published the book as a series between 1827 and 1838. It contains 435 life-size illustrations of birds – a handful of which are now extinct. This copy is number 150 of the 250 copies printed. A first edition sold at auction for $8.8 million in 2000 – a record for any book.

Derrière le miroir - $35,000

A complete set of 243 issues of this influential French art magazine edited by Aimé Maeght, which was published between 1946 and 1982. These issues feature numerous original lithographs and reproductions from artists like Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon, Georges Braque, and Saul Steinberg. One issue is signed by Miró.

Autograph letter by E.T.A. Hoffmann - $32,823

Autograph letter
Autograph letter

E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) was a German author of fantasy and Gothic horror stories, and a key figure in the Romantic movement. His stories inspired the opera The Tales of Hoffmann.

He also wrote the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which inspired Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker. This letter was written on July 21, 1816 in Berlin and sent to his publisher Georg Reimer. Hoffmann apologizes for the delay in sending his story Das Sanktus due to other time-consuming work. Sound familiar?

Hoffmann’s taste for the macabre in his fantasy writing influenced authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka.

Après 50 ans de Surréalisme by Salvador Dali - $32,000

The deluxe French edition of After 50 Years of Surrealism. Scarce. Published in 1974 by Transworld, Fribourg, this portfolio contains 12 color etchings by Salvador Dali. Each one is signed and numbered.

Security Analysis by Benjamin Graham & David Dodd - $29,000

The Bible for stock market investors and the most important finance book of the 20th century. A 1934 first edition, first printing. Graham taught at Columbia University and suffered in the 1929 crash. He prepared a systematic study of investment principles and agreed to lecture on the subject. Fellow tutor Dodd took notes and this book resulted from their teamwork. The book preaches the importance of making decisions based on hard facts. The first edition appeared both in black cloth and maroon cloth.

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson - $28,500

The Double Helix
The Double Helix

A 1968 first edition of Watson's book about the discovery of DNA. The author, along with colleagues Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, won Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 for their pioneering work in science. All three signed the title page.

Euclidis Megarensis geometricorum elementorum - $27,850


A 1516 French edition of Euclid’s influential Elementstext on geometry. Euclid of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician and is considered to be the father of geometry.

This work was written about 300 BC and serves as the foundation of scientific geometry. Little is known about Euclid's life, but his work was widely taught until new types of geometry were discovered in the 19th century.

Dracula by Bram Stoker - $27,500

An 1897 first edition of Dracula in its famous yellow cloth published by Archibald Constable & Company. One of the most influential novels ever published.

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith - $27,500

Wealth of Nations
Wealth of Nations

Printed in Dublin in three volumes in 1776, this is the only edition of Wealth of Nations printed in the same year as the first edition. Smith’s book is the founding text for modern economics. This association copy belonged to Lady Davy - Humphry Davy’s wife. Mr. Davy invented the Davy Lamp and identified several elements. The book contains Lady Davy's bookplate and an ink inscription in each volume stating the books were given by Smith to mathematician and geologist John Playfair.

Grapefruit by Yoko Ono - $25,450


Self-published in 1964 with a run of 500 copies, this is a first edition of Yoko Ono’s piece of conceptual art. Grapefruit offers "instructions to help you through life" divided into five sections - music, painting, events, poetry and objects. This copy is inscribed by Ono to American artist Ken Dewey.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett - $25,000

The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon

A 1931 seventh printing. This copy of The Maltese Falcon is important because of the author’s inscription – “For Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels with all good wishes - Dashiell Hammett. Hollywood, August, 1931."

Bebe Daniels played the female lead in the first film adaption of this famous novel. Daniels, who starred in more than 200 films, married fellow actor Ben Lyon in 1930.

The film was released in May 1931 to favorable reviews and boosted Hammett's career. This copy has its original dust jacket as well as the two promotional wraparound bands, one of which features illustrations from the film with Daniels.

The Peter Force broadside of the Declaration of Independence - $25,000

Declaration of Independence

Peter Force, an historian and printer, was commissioned by the US Congress in 1833 to compile a work which would be known as the American Archives and would include government documents, records and correspondence about the early history of North America. This is a large folio broadside (pictured) printed on rice paper from those archives. It was printed by engraver William Stone as a facsimileof the original Declaration of Independence after three years of work.

Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman - $25,000

A signed first edition of this autobiographical book. Feynman was an American theoretical physicist, who jointly won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichirō Tomonaga. Feynman developed diagrams to show the behavior of subatomic particles. During his lifetime, he was one of the world’s most famous scientists and this 1985 book was a bestseller. Feynman rarely signed copies. The book contains a collection of anecdotes from Feynman’s career.


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