Most Expensive Book Ever Sold

Shakespeare’s “First Folio,” a first edition collection of the Bard’s plays was the most expensive book sold at auction in 2006, bringing $5.1 million USD. The book was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death and contains a dozen plays that have never been reprinted as well as many that are considered classics today. The original printing issued 750 copies of the book and perhaps a third of these still exist today, albeit generally incomplete copies. With its original price of twenty shillings per copy, the book has needless to say undergone a remarkable price increase. It was a literary custom and common practice for readers to make revisions, additions and annotations to original books and manuscripts and this piece is no exception, with many notes giving insight into the book’s storied readership (perhaps a literary precursor to open-source software). The book was auctioned by Dr. Williams’ Library, a London library that contains a remarkable collection of first editions and manuscripts. It is said that the auction, carried out by Sotheby’s Auction House, will secure the finances and aging collection of the library for the near future.

Following up the most expensive book of 2006 was the first printed atlas, “Cosmography,” based on the work of second century Greek mathematician, geographer and astronemer Ptolemy. Printed in 1477, only two copies are held by private collectors today. The book fetched an impressive $4 million. It is worthy of note that five of the top ten most expensive books of 2006 were atlases, three of which were based on Ptolemy’s works. Atlases presented a unique challenge for early printers, as each map had to be etched into a printing plate by hand, precisely copying the original sources which were often over a thousand years old.

a page from the most expensive book
a page from Codex Leicester

As impressive as the value of those books may be, they pale in comparison to the record for the world’s most expensive book ever sold. Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester,” a notebook filled with original drawings, notes and sketches was sold to Microsoft founder Bill Gates for an incredible $30.8 million dollars in 1994. The most expensive printed book on record is James Audobon’s “Birds of America,” which sold in 2000 for $8.8 million. Audobon is a noted illustrator who pioneered much of early wildlife research. His work vastly increased popular awareness of the breadth of species in our world, and is still very highly regarded today for its accuracy and poignant detail.

Da Vinci’s “Codex” and Audobon’s “Birds” may, however, have a contender in 2008. Tomas Hartmann, the self-proclaimed “greatest philosopher of all time,” plans to sell a single copy of his book, “The Task,” for €153 million ($223 million USD). He only plans to sell a single copy of the thirteen-page book which is the culmination of thirty years of work. Despite his status as an international unknown, Hartmann’s book will be displayed at the Book Expo America 2008 Fair in Los Angeles and the Buch Wien Fair.

Hartmann also plans to sell an edition of 5,000 copies of a book of his philosophical poems, which he will introduce at the Linz international book fair, for €1530 per book ($2,234 in USD). However, if Hartmann wins a literary award, he plans to increase the price to €1.53 million per book.

While any reader, scholarly or not would be proud to own an original edition of Shakespeare’s work, perhaps we will see an even more outlandishly expensive price tag for a historic literary work in the near future. Rare original manuscripts that contain the artists’ and writers’ hand workings often sell for vast sums, and are put to auction fairly regularly. The rare book market is doing quite well and the prices are still going up, so even relative newcomers like Hartmann may author the world’s most expensive book.

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