Like any historical work, first edition books can fetch enormous sums when sold at auction. This is especially true of those books written by influential authors, scientists and other extraordinary thinkers. The most expensive books in the world are the works of seminal masters whose legacies are all but impossible to ignore.
Ptolemy’s Cosmography – $4 million
This atlast is based on the work of the second-century Greek mathematician, geographer and astronemer, Ptolemy. Printed in 1477, only two copies are held by private collectors today. 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.
Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, a first edition collection of the bard’s plays, was the most expensive book sold at auction in 2006. 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, many of them incomplete. With its original price of twenty shillings per copy, the book has 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 readership.
The book was auctioned by Dr. Williams’ Library, a London library that contains a remarkable collection of first editions and manuscripts. It was said that the auction, carried out by Sotheby’s Auction House, would secure the finances of the library for the near future.
James Audubon’s Birds of America – $11 million
The most expensive printed book on record is James Audobon’s “Birds of America,” which sold in 2000 for $8.8 million. A second copy was sold in 2010 for a staggering $11 million. Audobon is a noted illustrator who pioneered much of early wildlife research, and the book’s dimensions reflect his attention to detail. Each original copy of this book measures 3 feet by 2 feet, because Audubon wanted to paint the birds in life size. 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.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester – $30.8 million
This notebook filled with original drawings, notes and sketches was sold to Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 1994. The manuscript takes its name from Thomas Coke who purchased it in 1717, decades before he was created Earl of Leicester. In the Codex, Da Vinci devotes his attention to such topics as the movement of water and the luminosity of the moon.
Gates didn’t keep the manuscript to himself, either. He had the contents scanned and distributed as a screensaver with Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95.