Sure, books are easy to come by. With new editions and digital copies being printed and released constantly, you never find yourself hard-pressed (see what I did there?) to find…well…anything. But before the internet, you had to rely on book stores, libraries and perhaps a book dealer to find that particularly obscure tome you’ve been dying to scan your eyeballs over.
For centuries, books have been a major item for collectors, and it’s not hard to understand why. Language is perhaps mankind’s greatest achievement. Without it, we could probably not even survive as a species, let alone put a man on the moon. So when language is used as an art-form and transformed into a limited edition singular item, you can rest assured that there will be people out there eager to own it.
In the following list I have gathered some of the most rare and highly sought after books on the planet. So the next time you’re in an old book store, keep an eye out for any that might look familiar.
1. Gutenburg Bible
Although there is no particular order to this list, let’s start off with what is widely considered one of the first books ever “published”. Johannes Gutenberg experimented with movable type throughout the 1440s, using his own casting process to set type from an alloy he invented. He had printed some relatively unremarkable items before working on the Bible, which he first offered for sale in 1455 [source: University of Texas at Austin]. It is believed that 180 copies of the Bible were produced — 135 on paper and 35 on vellum, or calfskin. Today, only 48 copies are known to exist, some of them only partial, almost all of them in the hands of museums, universities and libraries [source: Clausen Books].
Gutenberg Bibles are rare and valuable for a number of reasons. In addition to their scarcity and status as the first of their kind, they’re books of exceptional quality. Gutenberg used finely crafted paper and vellum, as well as a special ink of his own invention that has remained vivid for centuries. Most of the Bibles were sold in folio form, or as loose pages that the owner would then have bound in the style of his or her desire. That gives each Gutenberg Bible a certain uniqueness. Each Bible is usually split into two volumes, with the Old Testament filling the first volume, and the second volume containing the remainder of the Old Testament and the entire New Testament.
So what’s a Gutenberg Bible worth? A perfect copy hasn’t changed hands in years, but in 2007, a single leaf went on sale for $74,000. In 1978, Christie’s auctioned off a perfect two-volume Bible for $2.2 million. Another Christie’s auction in 1987 transferred an incomplete version to a Japanese company for $4.9 million [source: Clausen Books]. As long ago as 1897, a perfect vellum Bible sold for $20,000 [source: NY Times].
2. Shakespeare’s First Folio
You can’t expect not to see Shakespeare on this list. So of course what would be the rarest Shakespeare book other than a first edition? The First Folio is the first authoritative collection of Shakespeare’s plays ever published.
The works were compiled by Shakespeare’s friends and business partners, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who helped run his theater company. For this reason, they had access to early drafts, notes and stage directions, as well as direct knowledge of the author’s work [source: British Library]. For historians and fans of the Bard’s plays, the First Folio is the best representation of Shakespeare’s writing, unadulterated by editors or modern translations.
An estimated 750 copies of the Folio were printed in 1622 and 1623. It contains 36 plays — which includes almost every play Shakespeare is thought to have written. Many of the plays were published for the first time in the Folio, which is superior to earlier quartos, or abridged reproductions of single plays. However, the First Folio isn’t perfect itself: Some plays have lines altered or deleted to fit the book, and each copy has a variety of typographical errors.
Today, many theater companies prefer to use the First Folio versions instead of modern editions, and reprints of the First Folio make these easy to access. You can even find digital versions of it for free. However, the rarity of original editions combined with Shakespeare’s reputation make this one of the most valuable rare books in the world. In 2006, a copy was auctioned by Sotheby’s for 2.8 million British pounds (roughly $4.2 million) [source: BBC].
3. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tamerlane and Other Poems’
Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), the father of the detective story, is a wildly popular American author to many people, not just horror aficionados and goths. His style of macabre story-telling and the mystery surrounding the way he lived and in particular, the way he died, only fuels the fire for his popularity. The Raven is perhaps his most popular and well-known of his many stories, but this small collection of poems by Edgar Allen Poe is notable for a number of reasons.
The first book Poe ever published was called “Tamerlane and Other Poems.” The title piece is about a Turkish warlord who forsakes his true love to build an empire but later regrets the decision. It isn’t one of his greatest works, but only about 50 copies were printed — and one recently sold for more than $600,000 [source: Examiner].
What makes “Tamerlane” really exciting for the average book collector is that, for some reason, Poe wanted it published anonymously. The cover lists the author simply as, “a Bostonian.”
4. Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester
The Codex Leicester is a notebook of scientific observations produced by Leonardo da Vinci between 1506 and 1510 [source: American Museum of Natural History]. It differs from the other previously mentioned books in that it was never published or printed in any quantity. It is literally a one-of-a-kind book, handwritten by da Vinci himself. I hesitated to put it in this list for that reason, since anyone can write words on page and call it a rare book for only having one copy. But come on, this is Leonardo da Vinci. Not John Smith sitting in Starbucks, hammering out cliche after cliche.
Da Vinci was a genius whose scientific observations were matched only by his innovative inventions and artistic talent. The Codex is a direct look at his observations and thought processes. It isn’t in book form — the 18 leaves are separated, though they could fold together to form a 72-page book. Like many of da Vinci’s works not intended for publication, it was written in mirror-hand: All the letters are reversed, and the writing goes from right to left. It appears “normal” when viewed in a mirror. Many diagrams and sketches are included alongside the text. The subject matter ranges from astronomy to fluid dynamics.
The Codex is named after a previous owner (the Earl of Leicester), although it was renamed the Codex Hammer when American businessman Armand Hammer purchased it. Bill Gates bought it in 1994 and changed it back to its old name. Gates paid a whopping $30.8 million for it, making the Codex Leicester the most expensive book in the world [source: CBC].
5. John James Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’
Clear some space on your bookshelf for this one. John James Audubon was a naturalist and painter whose love of the natural world has made his name virtually synonymous with the act of observing and learning about wildlife. In fact, the Audubon Society is named after him. In 1820, he began painting birds in an attempt to paint every single avian species in North America. Audubon eventually completed 435 life-size bird paintings; Robert Havell Jr. engraved the works. To accommodate the size of the paintings, the engravings were printed on the largest sized paper available at the time — known as double-elephant — leading to the collection’s nickname, “The Double-Elephant Folio.”
The paintings weren’t issued in book form, but rather sent to subscribers, several at a time. This is partly why so few complete copies remain — about 120, by most counts. They’re often collected and bound into a series of volumes. A full set would’ve cost about $1,000 when they were printed. Today, individual plates sell for thousands of dollars, and a full collection sold in 2000 for $8.8 million, making it one of the most expensive printed books in the world [source: Princeton Audubon].
6. Bay Psalm Book
This book is on this list essentially because of what it represents historically. The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in British North America. The book is a metrical Psalter, first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Psalms in it are metrical translations into English. The translations are not particularly polished, and not one has remained in use, although some of the tunes to which they were sung have survived (for instance, “Old 100th“). However, its production, just 20 years after the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth, Massachusetts, represents a considerable achievement. It went through several editions and remained in use for well over a century. One of eleven known surviving copies of the first edition sold at auction in November 2013 for $14.2 million, a record for a printed book.
7. William Blake’s, The Book of Urizen
William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was one of history’s greatest poets, artists and “madmen”. During his lifetime, he was considered by his contemporaries to be just a little bit…odd. But this is the 1800’s, so anyone not conforming with the bourgeois guide to living prim and proper would garner the same reputation. Blake wrote books with grand philosophical themes personified as angels, monsters, and folkloric characters, and illustrated his work with detailed relief etchings. The Book of Urizen is one of his most prophetic books, a mythic adventure about the perils of alienated reason. Only 8 complete copies of it survive, one of which was sold for $2.5 million in 1999.
8. Miguel de Cervantes, First Edition of Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has had such a tremendous influence on the Western literary canon, it’s even created its own word (quixotic) to describe something impulsive and often rashly unpredictable. The act of “fighting windmills” has even become so symbolic in our culture, that it’s become an idiom itself. While this tale of the chivalry-obsessed Hidalgo can be found in any bookstore, a first edition of the book, from 1605, is not so easily obtained. The last time an original Don Quixote was purchased was 1989, for $1.5 million.
9. Charles Darwin’s, Origin of Species
Charles Darwin’s, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” was first published in 1859. Perhaps the most important biological book ever written and the most important scientific book of the nineteenth century, Darwin’s explanation of the role of natural selection as the basic cause of evolutionary change represented a challenge to conventional thought that still reverberates today (well, mostly with the conservatives). Originally published in an edition of 1,250 copies, the first edition is not especially rare, but fine, unrestored copies in the original green cloth binding are scarce and eagerly sought after. A fine copy in original cloth commands £150,000.
10. Emily Bronte’s, Wuthering Heights
Emily Bronte’s novel was published in a poorly-printed edition of only 250 copies in 1847. At the time, women authors were not widely received, so Emily elected to have it published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Wuthering Heights proved to be an extraordinary novel, despite offending many prudish critics during the time period. A first edition commands £200,000 at auction.
11. J.K. Rowling’s, The Tales of Beedle the Bard
The last book in this list proves that a book doesn’t have to old in order to valuable. But it does have to be rare. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Albus Dumbledore bequeaths a first edition copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard to Hermione Granger. The book is described as a popular collection of folktales about wizards and witches, and it becomes instrumental to the plot of the final Potter adventure. As a thank you gift to the people most involved in her success, Rowling decided to write and illustrate this book in real life. She produced 7 handmade copies bound with Moroccan leather and decked out in silver and jewels, calling them the “Moonstone editions.” 6 copies went to the “key people” who helped her on her way, while she sold the 7th for $3.98 million, as a benefit for the Children’s Voice charity.