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Hundreds of collectors around the world are willing to pay whatever is necessary to be the proud owners of important historical documents, books or manuscripts that have changed the course of humanity. For example, the Unites States Declaration of Independence sold for $2.2 million and a manuscript of Don Quixote, was acquired for $1.5 million. There are also dozens of invaluable documents that incite passions and provoke outbursts of emotion at international auctions.
Books are no different. For centuries, books were a luxury reserved only for royalty, the clergy or the very affluent. The painstaking work behind each page, carefully written and illustrated by hand, made a masterpiece of each book, singular and unique items that took many years to complete. And while the advent of printing allowed mass production; many of these early copies are now the object of desire for passionate bibliophiles. Below is a list of 10 of the world’s most expensive books.
1. Birds of America
by John James Audubon
Recently, the auction house Christie’s in New York auctioned a copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Already considered the most expensive printed book in history, this piece was sold in 2010 for $11.5 million. In fact, according to experts, a list of the 10 most expensive books ever sold would include at least three copies of this work. Although this time the book price at auction did not break any records, it did reach the considerable sum of $7.9 million.2. The First Book of Urizen
by William Blake
Printed in 1794, The First Book of Urizen is a key piece to understand the body of work of William Blake, whose unique poetry and illustrations arouse tremendous interest among scholars. One of the eight copies, known to exist, was sold by Sotheby’s in New York for $ 2,500,000.3. The Tales of Beedle the Bard
by J. K. Rowling
Rowling wrote this book after the publication of the seventh volume of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The award-winning author created this tomes to write and illustrate, by hand, seven copies of this magnificent story. While Rowling donated six copies to friends and editors, Amazon auctioned a seventh copy in 2007. Finally, sold for $3.9 million, this piece is now the most expensive modern manuscript ever sold. The profits obtained from the sale were donated to The Children’s Voice Foundation.4. Geographia (World Atlas)
by Claudio Ptolemy
The first World Atlas to be printed was also the first book in history to include engraved illustrations. A work of Claudio Ptolemy, printed in 1477, this piece depicts the world as it was known to the Roman Empire. Much of the information presented by Ptolemy in this work was based on the work of geographer Marinus of Tyre. It was sold, by Sotheby’s, in London for $4 million.
5. Traité des arbres fruitiers
by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau
In 1775, Duhamel, a prolific, virtuous author and encyclopedist, printed several volumes about agriculture, from an experimental standpoint. This piece, dedicated to fruit trees and illustrated by Pierre Antoine Poiteau and Pierre Jean François Turpin, consists of a set of five volumes, containing beautiful illustrations and text. It was sold in 2006 for $4.5 million.
6. Gutenberg’s Bible
This work, considered the birth of the “Press Age”, is without a doubt a unique example of history. No one knows exactly how many copies were printed originally. Also known as “The 42-line Bible”, referring to the 42 lines printed on each page, three copies are kept at the Fort Knox military fortress, the most tightly guarded place in the U.S.A., in the State of Kentucky. Christie’s in New York auctioned another copy in 1987, for $4.9 million.
7. The First Folio,
by William Shakespeare
During his lifetime, Shakespeare published only 16 of his works. A few years after his death in 1616, a volume, including 12 of his writings, was published. Known as the First Folio, there are only about 250 surviving copies of the 750 printed originally. Described by Sotheby’s of London as “the most outstanding book of English literature”, it was auctioned for $6.1 million.
8. The Canterbury Tales,
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Often compared to Boccaccio‘s Decameron, this masterpiece represents the flowering of literature during the Middle Ages in England. In fact, it is one of the first literary works written in the English language. As far as we can claim, only 12 copies still survive. Christie’s in London sold one in 1998 for $7.5 million.
9. The Gospels of Henry the Lion,
Order of St. Benedict
This exquisite piece of 12th century art was originally commissioned by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, to a group of monks who lived in a convent in Helmarshausen, Germany. Its pages reveal a visual and intellectual feast of medieval art and thought. Fragile as it is, it requires meticulous and detailed care to preserve its 226 pages of parchment. Sotheby’s in London auctioned the Gospels of Henry the Lion in 1983 for the sum of $11.7 million.
10. The Codex Leicester,
by Leonardo da Vinci
This extraordinary 72-page manuscript contains Da Vinci’s stunning entries about various topics ranging from the fluidity of water to the luminosity of the moon, spectacular drawings and autobiographical notes from the author from the years between 1506 and 1510. In 1994, the tycoon and computer genius Bill Gates purchased this piece of history for $30.1 million, making it the world’s most expensive book. ■