The Most Expensive Books Ever Sold at Auction

James Ardis
Published on

After the record sale of Shakespeare’s First Folio, Auction Daily revisits the category’s other high achievements

Shakespeare’s First Folio. Photo by Christie’s.

Last week, Christie’s offered a complete copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio at auction with a presale estimate of USD 4 million to $6 million. The lot easily beat its high estimate, selling for nearly $10 million. The auction house announced it was the highest price achieved by a piece of literature at auction.

Christie’s International Head of Books & Manuscripts, Margaret Ford, branded the Shakespeare folio as a “once in a generation” piece in presale marketing. And after the record-setting result, it appears bidders agreed with Ford. It was the first time in almost 20 years that a complete copy of the folio crossed the auction block.

When an auction lot breaks records, it’s often an opportunity for the industry to look back on the achievements that came before it. What are the other manuscripts that once held this title? And which books still hold other distinguished auction records in the category? Auction Daily reflects on over 30 years of record-breaking books.

Gutenberg Bible
(Sold by Christie’s, 1987)

Leaves from the Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Sotheby’s.

Thousands of miles apart, a bidding war erupted between London book dealer Thomas E. Schuster and a Japanese bookselling company, Maruzen Co. Ltd. At stake was one of less than 50 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Schuster was bidding live at the New York event and, as the minutes passed, he anxiously anticipated the counterbids on the phone from Maruzen.

Eventually, the Gutenberg Bible was sold to the Japanese company for $4.9 million, a record at that time for a printed book. That benchmark, set in 1987, would take many years to beat. Talking to the Los Angeles Times, a representative of Maruzen noted that the company was eagerly looking for a book of historic importance to display in their stores. 

The Gutenberg Bible was one of the first books printed with moveable type and  historians consider it an important step forward in mass communication. Before 1987, the record holder for the most expensive book at auction was also held by a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. That lot crossed the auction block with Christie’s in 1977 and achieved $2.2 million.

Shakespeare’s First Folio
(Sold by Christie’s, 2001)

Christie’s sale last week was not the first time that Shakespeare’s First Folio broke records. It was not even the first time the folio did so with Christie’s. In 2001, the auction house offered another complete copy. The lot sold for $6.16 million to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It became the most expensive Shakespeare text and piece of 17th-century literature sold at auction at that time, according to the Los Angeles Times

The formal title of Shakespeare’s First Folio is Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Published after the playwright’s death, the folio served as the first-ever collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Of the 36 plays included, 18 were previously unprinted. That includes Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
(Sold by Sotheby’s, 2007)

One of only seven handwritten copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling came to auction with Sotheby’s with a modest pre-sale estimate of GBP 30,000 – £50,000 in 2007. When the bidding was over, the book had sold to Amazon for £1.95 million (USD 3 million). The achievement makes The Tales of Beedle the Bard the highest-selling modern literary manuscript at auction to date, according to The Daily Telegraph.

The seven original copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard were not only handwritten by Rowling but also contained custom illustrations by the writer. The manuscript had particularly piqued the interest of Harry Potter fans after its appearance in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Proceeds from the 2007 sale benefitted Rowling’s nonprofit, Lumos.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling. Photo by Sotheby’s.

In the future, Rowling’s work is likely to be met by a less enthusiastic market. Many have accused Rowling of making transphobic remarks and presenting a troubling depiction of transgender people in her recent book, Troubled Blood

“I can’t imagine going back and explaining to my teenage self, ‘Hey, this author you love so much blatantly hates people like you,’” said non-binary author Marieke Nijkamp of growing up with the Harry Potter series and coming to terms with Rowling’s comments. 

Audubon’s Birds of America
(Sold by Sotheby’s, 2010)

from Birds of America by John James Audubon. Photo by Sotheby’s.

Michael Tollemache, a London dealer, was the winning bidder of a complete copy of Birds of America by John James Audubon in 2010. The lot sold for $11.5 million at a Sotheby’s event. This earned it the distinction of the most expensive printed book sold at auction, according to Bloomberg. Although competing for different titles, this sum even surpasses Christie’s sale last week of Shakespeare’s First Folio. 

From the American avocet to the Zenaida dove, Audubon’s Birds of America contains over 400 prints of birds that could be seen in the United States at the time of the artist’s research. Scholars value the work not only for its comprehensiveness but also for the artistry that went into Audubon’s depictions of each bird.

In 2018, another copy of Birds of America came to auction with hopes of beating the previous record. The book sold at $9.65 million with Christie’s, which was shy of the record but still within its presale estimate of $8 million to $12 million. The sale of that book benefitted the Knobloch Family Foundation, a conservation organization.

What will be the next book or manuscript to shatter records? Visit Auction Daily’s auction calendar to see upcoming sales across the industry, including those presenting rare books.

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