The Most Expensive Books Ever Sold (Literary Edition)

All books are not equal. Some are old and have aged well. Some were published in a first run without enough to go around. And some were signed by the author, or owned by someone famous.

‍Any of these factors might render a book rare, and in recent years, manuscripts such as The Book of Mormon and Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester have commanded millions of dollars.Recently, a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sold for $471,000, making it the most expensive expensive commercially published 20th-century work of fiction ever sold.

‍How do other works of literature fare? We take a look at ten of the most expensive literary books and manuscripts to enter the market (excluding religious, scientific and historical texts and treatises), seven of which were written prior to the 19th century.

$9.98 million by Christie’s, New York.

Published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the “First Folio” is one of six complete copies of the Bard’s collected plays to be privately owned. Out of 36 plays, approximately half had never appeared in print until this compilation appeared.

In October 2001, another complete copy of the First Folio was sold by Christie’s for $6.17 million, but the 2020 sold edition become the most expensive printed work of literature to be auctioned to date. Accompanied by a letter written and signed by Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone in 1806, this volume was bought by American collector Stephan Loewentheil.

2. Histoire de ma Vie (Story of my Life)

Sold in February 2010 for ~$9 million in a private sale.

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Source: Gallica

It might be ascertained that Giacomo Casanova had a desire for, among other things, writing – if his 3,700-word memoir is anything to go by. Casanova, a Venetian, worked as a librarian in his later years and wrote the manuscript intermittently from 1789 until his death. The book was written in French, the preferred language of the Italian upper class during that time.

Many modified and censored versions of the work were published, but the original memoir was thought to have been lost during World War II in the Leipzig bombings. It was later recovered and subsequently published in 1960. In 2010, with the support of a donor, the well-preserved handwritten manuscript became the most expensive acquisition ever made by the National Library of France, elevating Casanova’s reputation to almost-respectable.

3. The Canterbury Tales

Sold in July 1998 for $7.6 million by Christie’s, London.

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Source: Folger Shakespeare Library

Geoffrey Chaucer’s collection of middle English poetry is considered one of the earliest major books printed in England, dating back to 1477. Substantive first edition copies of The Canterbury Tales printed by William Caxton are extremely rare, coming up in auction only about four times in the 20th century, with a handful of copies in institutional libraries.

This copy is known as the “Rockingham Chaucer” after Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham and twice Prime Minister of Great Britain, who allegedly played an instrumental role in building the collection of books at Wentworth Woodhouse.

4. The Deeds of Sir Gillion de Trazegnies

Sold in December 2012 for $6.2 million by Sotheby’s, London.

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Source: Getty

This anonymous illuminated 15th-century Flemish manuscript was commissioned and owned by Louis de Gruuthuse, a renowned bibliophile and collector. Written in French, the tale and illustrations by accomplished painter Lieven van Lathem and scribe David Aubert depict chivalric escapades undertaken by the protagonist, a knight who travels to Egypt and then eastward. Gillion has several (mis)adventures along the way, eventually perishing heroically in battle. The Renaissance masterpiece was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum for its collection of similar manuscripts from the period.

5. The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Sold in December 2007 for $3.98 million by Sotheby’s, London.

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Source: Sotheby’s

The only contemporary work to make the cut is J. K. Rowling’s collection of five “Wizarding” fairytales for children, written as a companion to the Harry Potter novels. It is a handwritten manuscript and was also illustrated by the now controversial author – one of seven limited edition manuscripts she created. Six of these were presented to friends, while the seventh was auctioned and bought on behalf of Amazon, with proceeds donated to Rowling’s charity, Lumos.

6. The Rochefoucauld Grail

Sold in December 2010 for $3.7 million by Sotheby’s, London.

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Source: Sotheby’s

An illuminated manuscript of a romance from the Middle Ages, this book narrates the tale of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Written in French with over a hundred miniature illustrations, it was initially owned by the illustrious Rochefoucauld family of France.

It is the oldest surviving complete account of the Arthurian legend known to exist, and the first secular work of prose of such length and depth. The vivid, detailed illustrations depict everything from battles to romantic scenes, and are believed to have been created by a group of artists in Artois or Flanders.

7. The First Book of Urizen

Sold in April 1999 for $2.5 million by Sotheby’s, New York.

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Source: William Blake Archive

Romantic poet and artist William Blake invented his own mythology in a series of “prophetic” poetic works, with Urizen being one of the most significant. Writing in the late 18th century, Blake tackled themes including oppression and revolution, creating a parallel to the Book of Genesis.

He also illustrated the book in an etching style he called “illuminated printing,” where the image was drawn and painted in color on a copper plate, transferred onto paper, and then further textured with watercolors. There are eight known complete books handmade by Blake, and each is unique.

8. On the Road

Sold in May 2001 for $2.4 million by Christie’s, New York.

Jack Kerouac typed this Beat Generation novel on a paper scroll almost 120 feet long, which he created by taping together separate sheets. He did this so he could write without the interruption of repeatedly replacing the paper in his typewriter. Whether pretentious or practical, his method of what he called “spontaneous writing” seems to have worked – this first complete draft was typed over a period of 20 days in 1951 as a continuous wall of text without any paragraphs. However, it was not the first or the last time that the author would revise the manuscript.

The scroll was bought by James Irsay in 2001, but the final portion of the manuscript had been claimed decades earlier by a dog named Patchkee, belonging to Kerouac’s friend Lucien Carr.

9. Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye

Sold in July 2014 for $1.8 million by Sotheby’s, London.

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Source: Sotheby’s

Considered to mark the birth of printed literature in English, this was the first book from the press of William Caxton – the pioneer of printing in England – and was also translated by him from Raoul Lefèvre’s 15th-century French original. It is an epic romance spanning the history of Troy long before the Trojan War and focusing on the Greek mythological hero Hercules. The copy sold in 2014 belonged to the Duke of Northumberland, and there was a heated bidding war for what is one of only 18 existing copies of the book.

10. The Watsons

Sold in July 2011 for $1.5 million by Sotheby’s, London.

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Source: Sotheby’s

This originally untitled manuscript is a fragment from an incomplete novel by Jane Austen, believed to have been begun in 1804-05 while the author resided in Bath. Spanning approximately 7,500 words and 80 pages, it was owned by Austen’s sister Cassandra, and remained intact within the family until 1915. In 1871, Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published the story as an appendix in his Memoir of Jane Austen, and titled it The Watsons.

The heavily corrected manuscript, believed to be the earliest surviving original draft of a novel by Austen, was eventually divided among several owners. In 2011, a significant portion of the handwritten draft, totalling 68 pages, was bought by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford aided by the UK’s National Heritage Memorial Fund.

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