In search of the world’s most valuable books, letters and laws

When rare items of print go up for sale, the price they reach depends on any number of factors – from condition, to owner, to historical and cultural importance. But which titles are at the top of the auctioneer’s wish list?

This copy of the first printing of the United States constitution holds the current record for the price paid for a printed item – a cool $43.2 million. 

Photograph by UPI / Alamy Stock Photo
Published 2 Apr 2022, 11:19 BST

In November 2021, a rare first printing of the Constitution of the United States sold at auction for $43.2 million (£32.9 million), setting a record for the most expensive printed text item ever sold. The buyer was a hedge fund manager called Kenneth Griffin, who promises to loan the document to a museum in Arkansas, for public display. “The US Constitution is a sacred document that enshrines the rights of every American and all those who aspire to be,” he said after outbidding a consortium of 17,000 cryptocurrency enthusiasts. This document, on which United States law is based, is one of only 13 known first editions to exist, and one of only two under private ownership.

(Related: Inside the cloak and dagger hunt for sacred texts.)

As this sale suggests, many of the world’s most expensive printed items are political documents, rare letters or religious manuscripts. In 2019, for example, two letters written by Chinese scholar Zhao Mengfu, dating from the 13th or 14th centuries, sold for $38.2 million (£29 million). In 2017 the Mormon Church paid $35 million (£26 million) for an original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

The much-mythologised 'first folio' – properly, Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies – on display at the The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.

Photograph by B Christopher / Alamy

But what about literature? According to auction house Christie’s, the record for the most expensive work of literature was set in October 2020 when they sold a rare Shakespeare First Folio for just under $10 million (£7.6 million). Dating from 1623, and one of only 235 known to exist, it was purchased by American book collector Stephan Loewentheil from a Californian university. 

“The Holy Grail of books,” is how Loewentheil described his purchase. “It is the greatest work in the English language – certainly the greatest work of theatre – so it’s something that anyone who loves intellectualism has to consider a divine object.”

The First Folio (or Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, to use its correct name) is the earliest printed collection of the Bard’s plays. Containing 36 plays, the original print run was around 750 copies. However, during the intervening centuries, less than a third of these are known to have survived, most now stored in libraries, museums or universities in Britain and the United States. The book very rarely comes up for sale, which may explain its eye-watering price.

Other expensive literary works include a first edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales which sold for $7.57 million (£4.5 million) in 1998, and the original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom which took $7 million (£4.2 million) in 2014.

J.K. Rowling hand-wrote and illustrated six copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, part of the Harry Potter universe, for those closely connected with her series of books about the boy wizard. A seventh was written for charity, and was sold by Sotheby's in 2007 for $3.98 million. This copy was given by Rowling to Bloomsbury editor Barry Cunningham, who auctioned it with the author's blessing in 2017 for £368,750. 

Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy

The first 500 print-run copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone have proven to be amongst the most valuable books ever sold. Here, onesuch book is pictured alongside a warrant signed by Queen Elizabeth I, which sold for £19,000 at a Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts auction in September 2021. At the same auction the unsigned Harry Potter book was valued at £20,000-£30,000, but was unsold. 

Photograph by Malcolm Park / Alamy

Very few modern books command such high prices. An exception is a handwritten and illustrated copy of J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard – one of only seven copies – which went for $3.97 million (£2.3 million) in 2007.

As with any collectible object, rarity imbues books with huge value. Rowling intentionally created only seven handwritten copies in order to raise money for charity, assuring buyers no further editions would exist.

But for rarity to command the very highest prices, it must coincide with demand. Again, Rowling provides a great example. Only 500 copies of the 1997 hardcover first edition, first impression of her wizard debut Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were ever produced, most destined for libraries where wear and tear left them in sorry conditions. The 200 or so pristine versions that remain can now fetch tens of thousands of pounds at auction. In December 2021 a first edition sold for $471,000 (£362,000), making it, according to the auctioneers, “the most expensive commercially published 20th-century work of fiction ever sold.”

Authors whose books – particularly unique copies of them – are notably sought after include Virginia Woolf, J.R.R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl.

Photograph by Alamy

There are other indicators of high value. Tim Bryars is a spokesperson for the UK-based Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association and owner of Bryars & Bryars, an antiquarian bookshop in London.

He tells National Geographic (UK) that a book’s condition is crucial. “Is it in its original publisher’s binding? Has it been rebound but by an important named binder? Is it clean and complete? These factors can all affect the price.”

The provenance of a book can increase its value enormously, too. “Has it been owned by someone interesting, and have they added their marks of ownership?” Bryars says. “For example, it might be a fairly tatty looking book but if you can prove it belonged to Isaac Newton, and he has underlined passages that caught his interest, that makes it a totally different prospect. Increasingly, our trade is focused on the stories behind books; stories which set a particularly copy apart from all others, and make it unique.”

Bryars points to a 1793 atlas for sale in his shop which once belonged to a British sculptor called Anne Seymour Damer and still contains her bookplate. Damer once sculpted Horatio Nelson and later visited Napoleon Bonaparte in exile on the island of Elba. Bryars believes she may have used the atlas on her travels. “The book has a story to it and that’s what we’re interested in,” he adds. It’s for sale at £3,000.

The Ogilvy Map (1775) believed to be the first road map of England, resides with many other rare books at Belton House, Lincolnshire. 

Photograph by National Trust / Alamy

Literature lovers set great store by books signed by the author. The value of this of course depends on which book and which author. “Take Terry Pratchett as an example,” Bryars says of the late fantasy novelist. “He would go round lots of provincial bookshops; the queues would be huge, and he would take hours to get through everyone’s signatures. People joked that the unsigned copies of his books were rarer than the signed ones.”

Other authors sign very few books, quite deliberately. “JK Rowling signed very little,” Bryars says. “If she’d gone on a signing spree, the value of her signature would have plummeted.” More interesting than mere signatures are special dedications handwritten by the author. “Where books are inscribed, that can be very entertaining,” Bryars explains. “What does the inscription tell you about the relationship between the author and the recipient?”

In his shop, for example, he has a copy of one of Virginia Woolf’s novels with both a printed and a handwritten dedication to her sister Vanessa Bell. And for a while now, on behalf of one of his customers, he has been collecting books that once belonged to British prime ministers. One of these was a first edition of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, from the library of the 19th century PM William Gladstone. Inside is Gladstone’s bookplate and a letter from his widow gifting the book to his niece.

The British Museum displays a copy of the Magna Carta, dating from 1215 – and one of only four surviving. Another is housed in the nearby British Library. 

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

Even in this digital age, there are numerous rare bookshops which welcome browsers. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association has over 230 members, with over 50 concentrated in London.

Another way to achieve maximum browsing is to visit an antiquarian book fair. One of the largest is Firsts, London’s Rare Book Fair. Staged by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association in various incarnations since the 1950s, it brings together both British and international sellers.

The 64th and latest fair was in October 2021, at the Saatchi Gallery, in Chelsea, with 120 or so dealers and 4,500 visitors. Many were interested in the plethora of first edition novels on sale by 20th century writers, some more highbrow and/or expensive than others: Fleming, Dahl, Greene, Le Carré, Orwell, Sayers, Tolkien, Plath, Waugh, Wells, Verne, Kerouac and Irving were all well represented. There was an uncorrected proof of Roald Dahl’s The Witches from 1983 for £6,750; a three-volume first edition of The Lord of the Rings was on offer for £65,000. And a first edition, first impression of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was priced at £89,000.

Perhaps more intriguing were the antiquarian tomes. An 1825 first edition of Illustrations of the Book of Job by William Blake, for £57,500, for example. A 1932 book of poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, illustrated by Henri Matisse, for £75,000. A 1914 book of Keats poems for £45,000. An album of Chinese watercolours from the 1820s, for £125,000. One of the highest priced of all was a 1664 edition of the Grooten Atlas by Willem and Jan Blaeu, at £750,000.

“It might be a fairly tatty looking book but if you can prove it belonged to Isaac Newton, and he has underlined passages that caught his interest, that makes it a totally different prospect.”

Tim Bryars

Unfortunately, some of the UK’s most valuable books are hidden away in private collections. A great deal, though, are available for public viewing. At the Bodleian Old Library, in Oxford, for example, you can see the Magna Carta, Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Gutenberg Bible.

The Cambridge University Library also holds a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, as well as Charles Darwin’s archive (minus a handful of notebooks which are believed to have been stolen). There are also impressive collections at the National Library of Scotland (in Edinburgh), the John Rylands Research Institute and Library (in Manchester), the Lambeth Palace Library (in London), and at various National Trust properties such as Blickling Hall in Norfolk, Belton House in Lincolnshire, and Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire.

The most exhaustive collection of all is surely at the British Library, on London’s Euston Road. Here, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, some of the library’s most important items are on free public display.

Whether any of them would command a price close to the $43.2 million that the US Constitution recently sold for is unlikely. Nevertheless, you can view a whole host of works dating from the Middle Ages to present day. Exhibits are regularly switched around. Currently there’s a late 14th century edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 1631 edition of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, and various letters, poems and works by the likes of William Blake, Robert Burns, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Wilfred Owen, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Ian Fleming and Beryl Bainbridge.

The prize of the collection – normally kept in a small room but nowadays, because of COVID-19, out in the main gallery – is an original Magna Carta, dating from 1215; one of only four still surviving. Written in Latin on a single sheet of sheepskin parchment, and measuring just 50cm by 30cm or so, it looks rather understated. Yet this legal document is considered one of the first steps towards our nation’s democracy. Perhaps it’s our equivalent of the US Constitution.

For evidence of its importance, consider this: the last time an original Magna Carta came up for sale, in 2007, it sold for over $21 million (£10.5 million).

Dominic Bliss is a freelance journalist and editor based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

Editor’s note: where sale prices are added in (GBP) the amounts are relative to the year of sale.

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