These valuable books are worth a thousand words. And
millions of dollars.
Our team of collectors have researched a lot of super valuable collectibles here on Gemr. The most expensive comic books, the most valuable Yu-Gi-Oh cards, the rarest Disney collectibles, you name it. But when I researched the history of super valuable books, I realized we hadn’t seen anything yet.
Not only are the most valuable books extensively well
documented, they command prices that make Action
Comics #1 look affordable. To be fair, this is partially because a lot of
these super valuable books are of religious significance, so the price hikes
shouldn’t be too surprising. Even still, you’ll be in awe of the sheer numbers
these books have actually been sold for. Check out the ten most valuable books
that exist in the world today.
Note: For posterity’s sake, numbers on this list
have not been adjusted for inflation.
Keep this in mind to fully appreciate the amount some books were sold for many
10: First Edition Canterbury Tales
Kicking off our list is arguably the only “normal” book on this list. Chaucer’s classic The Canterbury Tales, beloved and loathed by Freshman seminar students nationwide, was originally printed in 1478. 12 copies of this original run miraculously survived through the centuries. One of these copies was sold at auction in 1998 to famous philanthropist and book collector Sir Paul Getty. Originally expected to sell for 700,000 pounds, the iconic book wound up selling for 4.6 million pounds, or roughly $7.5 million.
It’s possible that The
Canterbury Tales was sold for more than it was truly worth. But since the
remaining copies are held in institutional collections, we’d be lucky to even
see this book up for auction again.
9: Babylonian Talmud
From this point onward, we begin a tour of religious texts. For those unaware, The Babylonian Talmud is one of the central books of Judaism and “the primary source of Jewish religious law.” A copy of the Babylonian Talmud dating back to at least 1523 was put up for auction in 2015, and it was sold for a whopping $9.3 million.
The conditions of the sale brought some controversy, as it potentially violated the wishes of the person who owned it. Nevertheless, the Babylonian Talmud is not only one of the most valuable books ever sold, but the most expensive item in Judaica to date.
8: The Birds of America
With The Birds of America, we’ll begin another
trend of books that are more art than sheer literature. Because The Birds of America is so ubiquitously
known as one of the most valuable books in existence, it would be wrong to omit
it and books like it for that reason alone.
The Birds of America, created by John James Audubon, is a massive tome of 435 watercolor paintings of American birds. Each painting is at a life-size scale, so you’d need a massive table to even fit this book. It took Audubon from 1827 to 1838 to finish The Birds of America, meaning the finished book represents 12 years of work.
Every time a preserved copy of The Birds of America is put up for auction, it’s sold for millions
of dollars. The record price for The
Birds of America so far is $11.5
7: Gospels of Henry the Lion
And now the central conceits of the last two entries
converge in a book that is both religious in nature and most famous for its artwork.
The Gospels of Henry the Lion were commissioned by – you guess it – Duke of Saxony Henry the Lion during the 12th century. Created by the Helmarshausen Abbey, this work contains text from the Christian four gospels and was to be used at the altar of the Brunswick Cathedral in Germany. An exquisitely preserved Gospels of Henry the Lion was sold in 1983 at auction to the West German government for 8.14 million pounds, or $11.8 million.
Want to know the kicker? Hans Kraus, a dealer representing the German government, said “it was a real bargain, I’m very disappointed that [the book] sold so cheaply.” Yes, $11.8 million considered a bargain in 1983. Holy moly.
6: Rothschild Prayerbook
On its surface, the Rothschild Prayerbook is a Christian
devotional book from the renaissance era. Its history is surprisingly deep: its
original owner remains unknown to this day, and its whereabouts were largely unknown
until it arrived in the hands of the Rothschild family in Venice in the 19th
century. That’s just scratching the surface of its history, otherwise we’d be
here until we all forget that this isn’t a term paper.
In 1999, the Rothschild Prayerbook became the most valuable illuminated manuscript after being sold for $13.4 million. It was sold again in 2014 for a slightly lower price to Australian businessman Kerry Stokes. Stokes keeps it in his personal collection and loans it to the National Library of Australia.
5: St. Cuthbert Gospel
When it was first created, the St. Cuthbert Gospel probably wasn’t particularly special. Getting its name from its owner, the widely revered St. Cuthbert, the text is actually the Gospel of John written in Latin. On one hand, being a religious relic in would make the St. Cuthbert Gospel valuable on its own. However, what elevates it to insane levels is that it is one of the oldest European books that is still intact today.
Dating back to the 7th century, it’s incredible that this book is still in such good condition. The British Library in London was able to acquire the Gospel in 2012 for roughly $14 million.
4: Bay Psalm Book
The Bay Psalm Book isn’t quite as old as the St. Cuthbert Gospel, but it’s arguably just as historic. Containing basic English translations of psalms sung during liturgies, the book was widely used among early American settlers of the 17th century. Originally released in 1640, the Bay Psalm Book is the first book ever created and published in North America. To this day, 11 copies are known to still exist.
The Bay Psalm Book was purchased in 2013 by billionaire David Rubenstein for $14.2 million. Rubenstein wanted to keep a copy of this historic text in the United States, though it’s worth noting that a copy of the Bay Psalm Book is also held in the Library of Congress.
3: Magna Carta
Fair warning: the line between “book” and “manuscript”
becomes very blurred here. The item we’re talking about here is a manuscript,
but the text contained in it has been made available in book form for centuries
Long story short, the Magna Carta is one of the most important constitutional documents ever created. Its historical significance is too vast to do justice in a few sentences, and its text massively influenced the United States Constitution. It was created in 1215, and it’s still considered “the most important document in the world” to this day.
This record setting copy of the Magna Carta is from 1297, which should contextualize how historical and valuable this document is. It was sold in 2007 for $21.3 million.
2: Codex Leicestor
Taking inflation into account, the Codex Leicestor is the
most valuable book in existence by a massive margin.
The Codex Leicestor is the collection of observations and
discoveries by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci. Topics range from astronomy
to the properties of the Earth, with no particular cohesion for readers. In
other words, the Codex Leicestor is the most famous journal ever written.
Nevertheless, the Codex Leicestor is so valuable that it attracted the
attention of the world’s most famously weathly man: Bill Gates.
Yes, Gates himself bought the Codex Leicestor in 1994 for – wait for it – $30.8 million. Taking inflation into account, that number would be over $52 million today. This is definitive proof that, one day, your journal may be worth more money than the average human would make during their lifetime.
1: Book of Mormon
Last but not least, the number one slot for the most
expensive book goes to possibly the most straightforward item on this list.
The Book of Mormon – no, not that one – is the foundational text of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. One of the oldest surviving Book of Mormon manuscripts was held by a Latter-Day Saints denomination called The Community of Christ since 1903. The Church of Latter-Day Saints officially purchased the manuscript in 2017 for $35 million, officially setting the record for the most expensive book or manuscript ever sold.
On one hand, it may be surprising that so many of these expensive books were of religious significance. But if you look across all the different items and buyer’s we covered here, we see a much stronger trend emerge: historical significance. These books date back to hundreds of years ago, and were written by people we’ve only ever known from history books. It’s amazing to think that, to this day, the actual words of people like Leonardo Da Vinci still exist today. Collecting has always connected us to our history, and the buyers of these amazingly expensive relics are just preserving human history on a larger than life scale. But in a way, it reminds us of why we collect to begin with. Perhaps your books aren’t worth millions of dollars. But through the words they contain, the stories of past generations endure to this day and will persist in the distant future. So for all the history you preserve in your home – even if it’s just an old note a grandparent wrote – know that you’re playing your own part in protecting the history of humanity itself.