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The Most Expensive Books in the World

Read this the next time you're tempted to complain about the price of hardcovers at Barnes & Noble.

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manuscript 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard'
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The Tales of Beedle the Bard

JK Rowling’s first book since the conclusion of the Harry Potter series fetched a huge chunk of change. Published in December 2007, Beedle was the complete book of fairy tales that play a crucial role in the final installment of the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling produced seven separate handwritten copies of Beedle, filled with illustrations she herself had drawn. These books were incredibly beautiful: leather-bound, with silver and moonstones decorating the cover. Rowling gave six of these “Moonstone Editions” to friends and people who worked on the Harry Potter books, but one went up for auction on Amazon. One mega-fan paid $3.98 million for it, and Rowling donated the proceeds to a children’s charity. While far from the most expensive book on this list, Beedle was the priciest book ever purchased that was written and published in the twenty-first century. If you own one of these rare books, you’re sitting on a gold mine.

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Treatise of Fruit Trees
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Traité des arbres fruitiers

The title of this eighteenth-century French handbook translates to “Treatise of Fruit Trees.” The book was written by botanist Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau and contained five separate volumes filled with detailed illustrations. This manuscript went for 3.4 million euros (about $4.5 million U.S.) at a 2006 auction. Yes, someone spent four-and-a-half million dollars for a book about fruit trees.

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Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible

This was the first-ever edition of the Good Book to be produced using moveable-type print, with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press (hence the name). Despite being mass-produced, the Gutenberg Bible is still incredibly rare and valuable, as its $5.4 million price tag makes clear. Only 48 copies of the original 1450s-printed batch remain today. The buyer of this copy was Maruzen Co. Ltd., a major Japanese bookseller. At the time, 1987, it set the record for the most expensive book ever purchased.

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shakespeare's first folio
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The First Folio

This collection of William Shakespeare’s plays is widely considered one of the most significant treasures in literary history. Formally titled “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies,” the folio contains all but four of the Bard’s dramatic works. Of the 750 copies originally published seven years after his death in 1623, only 228 remain. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, snatched one up at Christie’s, an auction house in New York City, in 2001. It cost him a cool $6.2 million. If you love books but don’t want to pay exorbitant amounts, here are some websites that let you read great books for free.

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the canterbury tales
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The Canterbury Tales

This enduring collection of stories from the Middle Ages by fourteenth-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer fetched a hefty sum of money in 1998—7.5 million dollars, to be exact. The 17,000 lines of The Canterbury Tales tell the story of a motley crew of pilgrims who engage in a storytelling contest while on their way to visit a holy shrine. Only 12 original copies still exist today. One ended up in the hands of London book dealers, who purchased it for 4.6 million pounds. In 1998, that amount was equal to about five-and-a-half million U.S. dollars. If you do the math (there are 24 separate tales), that’s approximately $230,000 per tale.

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Britain Birds of America
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Birds of America

Between 1827 and 1838, naturalist John James Audubon published a series of exquisite prints depicting hundreds of different North American bird species. Together, the 435 illustrations form the complete first edition of Birds of America, of which there are only 119 remaining copies. Another reason for the bird book’s massive value is the fact that six of the bird species depicted are now extinct. In 2010, the most expensive copy of Birds of America went for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s Auction House in London. Two other copies of the book also raked in big money in the twentieth century: an $8.8 million copy in 2000 and a $7.9 million copy in 2012.

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Gospels of Henry the Lion

The Gospel of Henry the Lion

Only just beating out the birds in this list of expensive books is a lion… Henry the Lion, to be exact. Henry the Lion was the Duke of Saxony from 1142 to 1180 (Saxony, in case you were wondering, is a German state). He commissioned the production of a gospel book for display on the altar of Brunswick Cathedral. The text was a masterpiece, 266 pages long with 50 Romanesque illustrations depicting scenes from all four gospels. The book ended up back in the hands of the German government around 800 years later when it was purchased at a 1983 London auction for $11.7 million. Today, the complete manuscript has a home in Wolfenbüttel, Germany’s Herzog August Library. To ensure its safety, it is only put on display once every two years! Check out the most expensive things thieves have ever stolen.

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the Rotheschild prayer book
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Rothschild Prayer Book

These are some pricey prayers: this Flemish collection of Christian texts, psalms, and images cost its buyer $13.4 million. It was compiled in the early 1500s and features the works of a myriad of Flemish scholars, which fill 254 separate pages. In 1999, an Australian businessman named Kerry Stokes purchased it from Christie’s in New York. Stokes loaned it to the National Library of Australia in Canberra, where it remains today. These items are about to get way more expensive. 

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The Bay Psalm Book

Bay Psalm Book

Religious texts continue to fill this list of expensive books, with the Bay Psalm Book continuing the trend. This one stands out from its fellows, though, because of its distinction as the first book ever printed in the British colonies that would become America. In 1640, 20 years after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, the Bay Psalm Book emerged from printers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are approximately eleven copies still intact today, mostly in the possession of libraries and universities. One copy, though, has belonged to American businessman David Rubenstein since 2013, when he bought it at a Sotheby’s auction for $14.2 million.

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St. Cuthbert Gospel
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St. Cuthbert Gospel

This pocket-sized version of the Gospel of John is one of the earliest surviving examples of Western bookbinding. Created in the eighth century, it spent years in the coffin of its namesake, St. Cuthbert, before becoming the property of an English Jesuit school. In the years leading up to its 2012 purchase, it was on loan to the British Library. The book measures only five-and-a-half by three-and-a-half inches. It may be small, but its price tag sure isn’t; the British Library raised over $10.7 million to buy it for good at an auction.

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Magna Carta
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The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, the thirteenth-century charter that laid the foundation for the future of the law as we know it, is one of the most famous texts in history. Naturally, it earns a high spot on this list. The text was one of the earliest to lay out the concept of basic human rights and limit the powers of a king. Today, only seventeen copies predating 1300 survive. One sold for a whopping $21.3 million at a 2007 auction. The identity of the buyer is most likely David Rubenstein, who is also the lucky (or perhaps just wealthy) owner of the Bay Psalm Book. His reasoning for spending so much money? He thought it “very important” that there be a copy of the Magna Carta in the United States. It’s widely believed that the document helped inspire the Declaration of Independence.

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Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester
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The Codex Leicester

You might know this author’s name: Leonardo da Vinci. You might know the buyer’s name as well: Bill Gates. The current record for the most expensive book of all time belongs to this 72-page notebook filled with the Renaissance genius’s notes and theories. In the early 1700s, the Codex was purchased by the Earl of Leicester, hence its name. In 1980, an art collector bought it from the Leicester estate, and none other than Bill Gates bought it from the collector in 1994. The Codex set Gates back a cool $30.8 million. Gates decided to share his purchase with the world, and did it in the most Bill Gates way possible: he scanned the pages of the book and turned them into a Windows 95 screensaver. Next, check out the most overdue library books that ever made it back to the library.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.