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Which Are the Most Expensive Books Ever? Does It Matter?


Can the value of a book be determined by its auction price? Or does its value reside in deeper and more important qualities?

Books have always been valuable objects, even if this understanding of value has been modified throughout history. They became valuable when making them required materials that were precious at the time: from the paper, which was not easy to come-by, to the miniatures that embellished their pages or the scribe’s arduous labour, both of which entailed years and years of patient and committed work. They have become more valuable because, like an astronomical event, they are unrepeatable, unique; they require the unlikely convergence of innumerable circumstances. Lastly, they are valuable because of their importance to our civilising development.

Recently, in response to the auction of The Bay Psalm Book, the first book to ever be printed in the United States, when the country was still British America, was sold for fourteen million dollars, the Spanish journal El País published a list of the most expensive books to ever have been sold. These amounts, though outstanding, seem insufficient somehow. Indeed, how can we determine the fair value, for example, of works by Leonardo da Vinci or Shakespeare, which represent so much of our shared cultural inheritance?

Codex Leicester, Leonardo da Vinci

Also known as the Hammer Code, this book contains texts and drawings by da Vinci, which range from scientific subjects to artistic and philosophical ones. It is currently owned by Bill Gates, who bought it in 1994 for 30.8 million dollars. One of its distinguishing characteristics is that it has to be read reflected on a mirror, because of the way in which it is written.

The Saint Cuthbert Gospel

The state of the most ancient book in Europe is practically perfect. It dates back to the seventh century and its size is merely 96 by 136 millimetres. The origin of its name dates back to 1104 when it was discovered in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert, in the Durham Cathedral. For a long time historians believed that this was the saint’s personal copy of the Saint John’s Gospel in Latin, however later analysis determined the book was crated shortly after he died in 687. In 2011 after hosting several fundraisers, the British Library acquired the book valued at 14.3 million dollars.

The Bay Psalm Book

The first book to ever be printed in American territory contains Biblical Psalms in a metric translation into English. It was bought by David Rubenstein who bought a copy for 14.1 million dollars, which was previously owned and located in Boston’s Old south Church.

The Birds of America by John James Audubon

This is probably one of the most beautiful books to ever have been edited. It is an ornithological book published between 1827 and 1838 with illustration by John James Audubon, a naturalist and a painter, which also contains several examples of now extinct birds. The last copy of the last edition was acquired in 2012 for 7.9 million dollars by the heirs of the Fourth Duke of Portland, before however, another volume was bought by Michael Tollemache, an art merchant for 11.5 million dollars.

The Gospels of Henry the Lion

Between 1175 and 1118, Henry “The Lion”, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, commissioned the Helmarshausen Benedictine Abbey with the publication of a book of gospels to honour the Virgin Mary in Brunswick Cathedral, which at the time was known as the Saint Blaise Abbey. The monks completed one of the best editions ever made, it has 266 pages, is rich with illustrations and medieval miniatures. In 1983 the German government acquired the copy for more than 8 million pounds.

Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, William Shakespeare

The famous “First Folio” of the Bard’s work, which includes 36 dramas compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell, the author’s colleagues. The book is considered the undisputed and single source of more than twenty plays. Although 750 copies were printed, and their original price was only 1 pound, only 228 copies survive today, distributed over a handful of libraries and museums in the world. In 2001, Christie’s sold a copy for 6.16 million dollars.

The Gutenberg Bible

As the first book to ever have been made with moveable metal print, it is also an icon of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and of a new era in the cultural history of humankind. The most recent sale of one of these copies was made in 1978 for 2.2 million dollars, although currently a complete copy is valued in 35 million dollars.

But beyond sums and offers, auctions and buyers’ names, the list reminds us that the value of a book —according to the humanist tradition that emerged as we know it now— is found in its content, in the individual and collective transformational capacity implied by its presence in the world, embodying the incorporation of its message in our lives.

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