Million Dollar Manuscripts: The Most Valuable Books Ever Auctioned

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It turns out, though, that words can be worth a fairly sizeable amount themselves. It is perhaps testimony to our fluid-as-water culture that we have come to so revere old things, things that have withstood the test of time. As we continue to digitise our lives, literature inhabits one of the more controversially affected cultural arenas. As e-readers like Kindle grow in popularity, and podcasts like the LibriVox project gain momentum, we've been forced to reevaluate what it is we understand a ‘book’ to be. The literary fundamentalists amongst us are somewhere in a darkened room planning an e-book burning revolution, while the liberalists wonder why we'd ever pulp another tree into paper again. Somewhere in the middle is the opinion that increased accessibility and cheaper procurement of literature can only be a good thing, and that it shouldn't mean diminished importance for the e-book’s paper and ink ancestry.

Still, the inevitable archaism of the hardcover is upon us. Numbers don’t lie, and the staggering value that has been placed on flesh and blood literature speaks to a society that sees 'the book' as we know it as a relic. First editions of popular novels are as lucrative an investment as still-packaged animation figures and, like those, these books aren’t meant to be played with. They are artefact, museum bound. And the older they are, the fewer extant versions, the more substantial the amount they raise at auction. So as culture goes under the hammer, which texts have won the vote for most valuable literary commodity? The results might surprise.

10 Les Liliacees [Redoute] $5 million

Number ten on the list is actually not, technically, literature but rather a collection of art. Under the patronage of Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine, the artist Redoute flourished as an engraver and painter, and founded a reputation based largely on his representations of the Lilly. When Josephine was divorced by Napoleon in 1809, Redoute’s work suffered a blow. Nonetheless, he continued to paint and died examining a white Lilly. Redoute created the work now collected in Les Liliacees between 1802 and 1816. The collection was purchased by arts dealer Graham Arader in 1985 for an impressive $5 million. The irony of the sale is all the more poignant when considered alongside the poverty in which Redoute himself eventually lived and died.

9 The Works of William Shakespeare (Comedies, Tragedies, Histories) [Shakespeare] $6.1 million

No surprise at all is the Bard’s appearance on this list. Indeed, one might have expected to see this a little higher up in the rankings. Shakespeare needs no introduction, but this is not just any old Shakespeare. This is the first folio - a first edition Shakespeare. Incredibly, Oriel College, Oxford sold its copy in 2003 to Sir. Paul Getty for £3.7 million, or $6.1 million. A steal. Of course, Shakespeare himself would have been entirely behind this commercial enterprise being, as he was, an advocate of the art-for-patronage-and-money school of thought. Marlowe on the other hand… well, his cultural ethics have kept him off the list.

8 The Canterbury Tales [Chaucer] $7.5 million

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales  is one of the most influential literary collections of the Middle Ages. One might think age and importance would garner Chaucer a tidier posthumous profit, but the fact is he was so prolific in his own lifetime that his work still exists in at least 80 known manuscripts today. The Canterbury Tales just isn't close enough to extinction to break the auction house glass ceiling. This particular version was purchased in 1998 by London booksellers, the Mags Brothers. The last time this text changed hands, it was sold to the first Earl Fitzwilliam for £6 in 1776. That’s quite an appreciation.

7 The Birds of America [John James Audubon] $11.5 million

This is one of the stranger entries on the list. Originally published as a series between 1827 and 1838, Audubon set out to complete drawings of every bird in America. The project was patronised by, amongst others, Charles X of France and Queen Adelaide of Britain. The ‘text’ is infamous for its majestic size and technically holds three places in the top ten list, having earned $11.5 million, $8.8 million and $7.9 million at three separate auctions, for three separate copies. The most valuable version is also the most complete copy and sold to London art dealer Michael Tollemache in 2010.

6 Gospels of Henry the Lion [Monks of Benedictine Helmarshausen Abbey] $11.7 million

This breathtaking collection of illustrated gospels is so valued, and so vulnerable, that it is displayed only twice annually by its current guardians at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. Henry the Lion commissioned the work to be displayed at the altar of the Virgin Mary, at Brunswick Cathedral. The work has never been precisely dated, but is understood to have been completed around 1188. The collection was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1983 and sold for a colossal $11.7 million. There is a particular part of the New Testament in which Jesus wrecks havoc on the temples because they have been appropriated for trade. Now, we know the bible is mystifying, but odds are Christ wouldn't be delighted with the commercialism inherent in this sale of his gospels.

5 Rothschild Hours [Various] $13.4 million

Another religious text, the Rothschild Hours is a prayer book, or Book of Hours, and is illustrated by a number of influential Flemish illuminators of the early 16th Century. This text may be number 5 on our list, but it’s number one on the list of most valuable illuminated manuscripts. The book is named after the Rothschild families who are among the earliest known owners. The book was confiscated from the family during the German annexation of Austria before the outbreak of WW2. Although it was returned to the care of the family after WW2, the Austrian government confiscated it under newly implemented legislation. This little book has changed hands on a number of occasions and is now once more on sale at Christie’s. Its last auction house appearance before this, in 1999, garnered $13.4 million from an anonymous European collector.

4 Bay Psalm Book [“Thirty Pious and Learned Ministers”] $14.2 million

This is New World memorabilia, having been commissioned by the founding fathers in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640. The text, which is a collection of metrical hymns, was compiled in response to a feeling that the existent psalters were inadequate. Only eleven copies survive, and one of these sold last year for $14.2 million, to David M. Rubenstein, a Washington investor. Mr. Rubenstein may be a private collector, but he has made clear his intentions to loan the text out for display to various libraries, an intention that has been widely commended.

3 St. Cuthbert Gospel [Monks of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey] $14.3 million

Although this text is known as The St. Cuthbert Gospel, and was believed for some time to have belonged to Saint Cuthbert himself, it is now thought that the miniature Latin collection was actually created to place in Saint Cuthbert’s coffin, by the Monks of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey. The book holds the odd honour of ‘smallest Anglo-Saxon text’, and is almost completely undamaged despite being 14 centuries old. The book sold in 2012 to the British Library for $14.3 million.

2 Magna Carta [King John’s Feudal Barons] $21.3 million

The Magna Carta or Great Charter of the Liberties of England is one of the more celebrated of the texts in the top five of this list, being of monumental historical import. This text was one of the earliest documentations of civil liberties in England, and was completed against the will of King John, compelling him to afford certain freedoms to the people of England, in 1215. The British equivalent of the written constitution of the United States of America, this text sold in 2007 to David M. Rubenstein, a collector we’ve already encountered on this list, for $21.3 million. It isn’t quite the original, but it is the earliest surviving copy, committed to paper in 1297.

1 Codex Leicester [Leonardo da Vinci] $30.8 million

Officially the most valuable ‘book’ of all time, this manuscript hosts da Vinci’s take on astronomy and the elements. In 1980 it was purchased by US businessman Armand Hammer, who tried (and failed) to rename the text ‘Codex Hammer’. Bill Gates then purchased the text in 1994 for the whopping sum of $30.8 million and, in what might seem to be either an entirely appropriate or massively ironic move, scanned the pages for distribution as Microsoft wallpaper images. Of course, the digitisation has proven hugely important for academic purposes so we can’t really argue with him. Gates also ensures that the Codex is displayed once annually, at various locations around the world.

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