Rare Books

AbeBooks' most expensive sales of all time

The most expensive sale in AbeBooks' history occurred in February 2015 when a rare ornithology book printed in 1765 sold for $191,000. This remarkable sale took online bookselling into six figures for the first time. The book's lengthy Italian title can be translated and shortened to A Natural History of Birds.


Published in Florence, this five-volume Italian book contains 600 beautiful hand-colored engraved plates of birds. Commissioned by Maria Luisa, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, the book took 10 years to complete.

This copy's fine condition enhanced its value along with the fact that it is a scarce book - only 10 complete copies had been offered at auction in the previous 40 years.

Illustrations from our top sale

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Our second most expensive sale occurred in 2018 - a 1638 first edition of Galileo's greatest work, the "Discorsi" for $82,500. This book is considered to be the first modern physics textbook.

Everyone knows the next book on the list. A first edition of The Hobbit with a $65,000 price tag – not bad for a humble children's book published in 1937.

AbeBooks' 25 most expensive sales of all time

Storia naturale degli uccelli trattata con metodo e adornata di figure intagliate in rame e miniate al naturale by Saverio Manetti - $191,000

Translates as a 'Natural History of Birds Treated Systematically and Adorned with Copperplate Engraving Illustrations, in Miniature and Life-Size.' Five volumes containing more than 600 hand-colored engraved plates of birds from around the world. Published in 1765.

Natural History of Birds
Natural History of Birds

The book's artwork was drawn and etched by Violante Vanni and Lorenzo Lorenzi, while the text was penned by Saverio Manetti - an Italian physician, ornithologist, and director of the botanical garden in Florence from 1749 to 1782.

The artwork was created using dead specimens from an Italian nobleman's ornithology collection as models, and the birds are displayed in rather dramatic, eye-catching poses. Some consider the book to be a commentary on 18th century Italian high society because the bird poses are almost human.

Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche by Galilieo - $82,500

A 1638 first edition of Galileo's last work, the "Discorsi" (Discourses on Two New Sciences), which is considered to be the foundation of modern mechanics. The two new sciences that the book describes are the engineering science of strength of materials and the mathematical science of kinematics - the physics of bodies in motion subject to the force of gravity. One of the great science books ever produced, this copy is bound in contemporary vellum.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien - $65,000

Published in September 1937, this first edition, first printing is in its original dust jacket. Only 1,500 copies of the first edition were printed, and they were sold out by mid-December of 1937.

The Hobbit first edition
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

While The Hobbit gained enough popularity to prompt the publishing of Lord of the Rings, it did not achieve its full audience until the 1960s when publishers printed a huge reissue of affordable Hobbit copies in the US. The timing of the release was perfect as it coincided with a cultural revolution that embraced many of the social themes in the works.

Another factor in the success of the novel was adult acceptance of fantasy, where as previously the genre had been mostly regarded as children’s entertainment. This new found mass appeal began to drive the collectors market for early editions.

Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing To the Parliament of England by John Milton - $65,000

Published in 1644, this pamphlet by the author of the epic poem Paradise Lost defended the freedom of the Press as the British government suppressed their opponents' publications.

Der Naturforscher by J.E.I Walsh & J.D. Schreber - $60,321

Bound in 13 volumes and published between 1774 and 1804, this work deals with entomology, palaeozoology, mineralogy and geology, zoology and botany. Contains 143 folded engravings.

Utopia De optimo reip. statu, deque nova insula by Sir Thomas More - $60,000

More became a Catholic martyr when Henry VIII beheaded him. This 1518 fourth edition outlines his ideal state, and pleads for religious tolerance and universal education.

Poems with elegies on the author's death by John Donne - $60,000

Little written by Donne appeared in print in his lifetime but hundreds of manuscript copies were circulated by hand. This 1633 first edition was the first collection of his poems.

Poems by John Donne

Donne (1572-1631) was a poet and scholar born into a Catholic family, who later became a cleric in the Church of England. He is famous for his metaphysical poetry, including sonnets, love poems, elegies and songs.

After converting to the Anglian Church, he became noted for his sermons and religious poems.

A Member of Parliament and Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, his poetry was not appreciated until after his death.

Historical, Military, and Picturesque Observations on Portugal by Lt.-Col George Thomas Landmann - $57,500

This 1818 first edition is described as "the most beautiful illustrated English book on Portugal of the period." Landmann fought in the Peninsular War, and his book details sieges and battles.

Das Kapital by Karl Marx - $51,739

First edition in three volumes, published in 1867, 1885 and 1894 - one of the most influential economic and political works of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Cook’s Voyages by John Hawkesworth - $50,000

Cook's Voyages
Cook's Voyages in nine volumes

A rare first edition set of the official accounts of Captain James Cook's three voyages published in nine volumes in 1773, 1777 and 1784 respectively. These books were 18th century bestsellers with readers eager to learn about the other side of the world.

Cook’s first voyage is covered by three volumes and describes his journey to the Southern Hemisphere. His second voyage, towards the South Pole, is described in two volumes. His third voyage, to the Pacific Ocean including the western coastline of America and Canada, is detailed in four volumes. These books gave Europeans a greater awareness of world geography, while his maps and charting of coastlines laid the foundation for modern maritime routes.

Mickey by Damian Hirst - $47,999

A screenprint of Mickey Mouse, reimagined by British artist Damian Hirst. This artwork was first created in 2012 as an oil painting to be auctioned in aid of a charity. Signed in pencil by the artist.

Mickey Mouse screenprint
Mickey Mouse screenprint by Damian Hirst

Hirst dominated the UK art scene during the 1990s. He became infamous for a series of artworks featuring dead animals such as a shark, a sheep and a cow. This abstract version of Disney's Mickey Mouse is one of Hirst's lighter works.

Hirst's 1997 autobiography is called I Want To Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. It's also an art book and includes pieces of artwork set against a visual narrative of drawings, words, photography, typography, pop-ups and other effects.

Uranometria, Omnium Asterismorum Continens Schemata, Nova Methodo Delineata, Sereis Laminis Expressa by Johann Bayer - $47,729

A rare piece of astronomical history from 1603 - a first edition of the most famous celestial atlas of all with 48 lavishly illustrated tables portraying the constellations identified by the Greeks and a 49th table showing 12 newly discovered constellations. The book has the coat of arms of a Venetian family on both covers and a monastery stamp on its title page.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming - $46,453

Signed first edition of the 1953 Jonathan Cape publication of Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel; this copy has also been inscribed by Fleming "To/ _____ _____/Something for the/flight/from the author".

Ulysses by James Joyce - $46,310

Ulysses by James Joyce

Published by John Lane The Bodley Head in 1936, this is a first edition bound in vellum. A fine copy with a near fine original slipcase. #69 of 100 numbered copies signed by Joyce, from of a total edition of one thousand. The Bodley Head's promotional announcement is laid in. It reads: "Final and definitive edition, James Joyce's Ulysses, together with much new appendix material containing documents relevant to the legal history of the book & an up-to-date bibliography of Mr. Joyce's works." Ulysses was first published in book form in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, famous for her Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. Ulysses chronicles a day in the life of Leopold Bloom.

Arabic Manuscript of Al Wajaza Fi Sihhat Il Qawl Bi l Ijaza - $45,000

This is an important work on Hadith methodology (narrations concerning the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) that was originally written in the 10th century AD. This copy was published in the 12th or 13th century and contained an ownership mark on the title page from a scholar called Ibrahim B. Sulleymanb Muhammad B. Abd Ul Aziz Al Hanafi Al Jinini, who bought it while in Damascus in 1659.

Les Maîtres de L'Affiche (5 vols) - $43,450

This translates as Masters of the Poster, which was a monthly illustrated French publication published between December 1895 and November 1900.

Maitres de l'Affiche
An 1895 poster from Maitres de l'Affiche

The magazine, produced under the leadership of Jules Cheret, contained reproductions of the best Art Nouveau posters of the era from both French and international artists. This is a five-volume collection featuring 256 posters from 97 artists.

More than 100 artists were featured including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, William Nicholson, Edward Penfield, Albert Guillaume and Maxfield Parrish. The posters promote a wide variety of themes from Harper’s Magazine to events, products, travel and tourism. Art Nouveau spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was widely used in advertising. The ornate and elegant style celebrated craftsmanship and beauty.

Innocentia Victrix - $41,800

Innocent Victorious was written by a group of Jesuit missionaries based in China. Printed in Canton in 1671, this book contains Chinese and Latin text detailing Chinese imperial decrees in favor of Christians in China. It confirmed China's tolerance toward Christians after a period of persecution between 1664 and 1666 when missionaries were jailed. It features a Chinese woodblock printing with a frontispiece showing the emblem of the Jesuit Order. The Jesuits produced the book using Chinese printing technology, much to the surprise of their colleagues in Rome.

The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln - $40,000

Published in 1905, this is the Presidential Edition, limited to 50 copies. There are 12 volumes, bound in 23. It features engraved portraits, views and maps, photogravures, and facsimile letters. The frontispiece in each volume is an original watercolor of a log cabin.

Das Kapital by Karl Marx - $40,000

A second copy of Marx’s world-changing book. Published in 1867 by Otto Meissner with German text, this edition of Das Kapitalwas the only one published in Marx's lifetime (he died in 1883). The book is housed in a slipcover with cloth wrapping.

Harry Potter Series, Deluxe Set by J.K. Rowling - $38,560

Signed Harry Potter set
Signed Harry Potter deluxe set

Published by Bloomsbury, all seven volumes in deluxe bindings. All signed by J.K. Rowling. The Chamber of Secrets, and The Prisoner of Azkaban are signed by artist Cliff Wright.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling - $37,000

An unread first edition, first printing from the 500 original copies published before anyone knew JK Rowling’s name.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll - $36,000

Only 22 copies of the true first edition are in existence after Lewis Carroll withdrew the entire print run of 2,000 copies. One such copy came up for auction earlier in 2016 and was expected to sell for between $2 million and $3 million, but it failed to meet its reserve and didn't sell. This copy was one of the first thousand copies printed for the American market. The publisher is Appleton of New York and the publication date is 1866.

Discours de la Méthode by Descartes - $32,500

Discours by Galileo
Discours by Galileo

This is a famous philosophy book first published in 1637 but this copy is special due to its artwork produced by Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), a French-Hungarian artist described as the father of the Op Art movement. He used geometric shapes and colorful graphics to create illusions of spatial depth. He was heavily influenced by Bauhaus design, the works of Vasily Kandinskii, and Constructivism. Vasarely experimented with surrealist and abstract expressionist styles during the 1940s before arriving at his hallmark checkerboards. One of only 15 copies reserved for Vasarely, which he signed.

Pasiphaë illustrated by Henri Matisse - $30,000

Published in Paris by Martin Fabiani in 1944, this first edition, #90 of 230 copies, has been signed by Matisse. It contains 147 linocuts by the artist on loose leaves in a carton folder. In Greek mythology, Pasiphaë was the daughter of Perse and Helios. She’s associated with Crete and, after being cursed by Poseidon, she had sex with a bull to produce the minotaur.

Die Verwandlung by Franz Kafka - $30,000

A first edition, published 1915 by Kurt Wolff. This famous novella contains 73 pages plus five additional pages of advertisements. The story sees a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, wake one morning to find he has been changed into a giant insect.

Die Verwandlung
Die Verwandlung by Franz Kafka

The work was completed by Kafka in 1912 and published in November 1915. Die Verwandlung first appeared in German in the Berlin journal, Die Weissen Blatter, and a second edition was published by Wolff in 1918.

This German edition is quite scarce according to Joachim Unseld in Kafka: A Writer’s Life, it is estimated that no more than a thousand copies were originally published, all of which sold quickly. It should also be noted that an English language edition didn't appear until 1937.

Born in Prague to German-speaking Jewish parents, Kafka died in 1924 and most of his work was published posthumously.

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