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December 20, 2013updated 02 Feb 2016 4:03pm

The most valuable first edition books in the world

By Spear's

Author: Peter Matthews

From the first book ever written in the USA to British classics penned by literary greats, some of the most valuable books have fetched more than $10 million at auction. Spear’s takes a look at the most expensive first editions, dating back to the fifteenth century.

£8.8 million – Bay Psalm Book


Setting a new world record for any printed book when it sold for £8.8 million ($14,165,000) in November 2013, the rare Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in what is now the United States of America.

The book, which is a translation of the biblical psalms by the Puritans published in 1640, was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York to American businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein. It is one of only eleven surviving copies.

At the time of the purchase, Rubenstein said he intended to share it with the American public by loaning it to libraries across the country.

Image: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

£7.3 million – Birds of America by John James Audubon

Birds of America

Before the sale of the Bay Psalm Book, the world record for any printed book was held by a copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, which sold for £7.3 million ($11.5 million) at Sotheby’s London in 2010.

The rare, four-volume book, which illustrates more than 400 life-size North American species, was purchased by London-based fine art dealer Michael Tollemache.

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Other copies of the early-nineteenth century book have sold for $7.9 million and $8.8 million.

Image: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

£4.6 million – The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales

The sale of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer went above and beyond the expectations of auction house Christie’s, which predicted that it would fetch around £700,000 at most.

In fact, the book reached £4.6 million ($7.5 million) at a Christie’s auction in London in 1998 when it was sold to the late British philanthropist Sir Paul Getty.

The edition is one of only 12 copies printed by William Caxton in the 1470s which are believed to still be in existence.

£4.3 million – First Folio by William Shakespeare


A rare copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, known as the First Folio, fetched £4.3 million ($6.1 million) when it was auctioned off by Christie’s in New York in 2001 – double the amount the auction house estimated it would be sold for.

Considered to be one of the most important books in English literature, the book – formerly titled Comedies, Histories & Tragedies – contains eighteen plays, including Tempest, Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and several other Shakespeare classics.

Published in 1623, it was sold in its original, seventeenth-century calf skin binding to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Another copy of First Folio sold for £2.8 million ($5.2 million) in 2006.

$4.5 million – Traité des Arbres Fruitiers by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau

Arbres Fruitiers_

Sold by auction house Pierre Berge auction & Associes in Brussels in 2006, Traité des Arbres Fruitiers is a collection of French botanist Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau’s 30-year observations of fruit trees.

Written in the eighteenth century, the five-volume book – which means Treatise on Fruit Trees’ in English – features sixteen species of fruit trees.

£1.95 million – The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling


One of only seven handwritten copies of J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard in existence was sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2007, raising £1.95 million ($3.98 million) for children’s charity Lumos.

Illustrated on vellum, bound in brown Morocco leather and mounted with different semi-precious stones, the rare edition of five wizarding fairy tales exceeded expectations for it to fetch up to £50,000.

The book played a central role in the seventh Harry Potter title, in which a volume was left to Hermione Granger by Hogwarts head teacher Albus Dumbledore. The 157-page book was sold to Amazon.

Image: Courtesy of

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