Top 10 Rare Books

A detail from the first volume of a Gutenberg Bible, on display at New York's Morgan Library and Museum.
Mary Altaffer/AP Images

What makes a book rare and valuable? It all comes down to supply and demand -- and condition. The rarest books in the world are highly sought after by collectors because they're associated with a particular author or a major historical event or era, or simply because they're incredibly old.

In the world of book collecting, old means very, very old. Johannes Gutenberg developed the movable type printing press in the 1440s -- in fact, any printed book dating from 1500 or earlier is known as an incunabulum, and is virtually guaranteed to be rare and valuable. A Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1456 and considered the first book of movable type ever printed, is usually considered the zenith of book collecting.


Some books become rare not because of the content of the book itself, but because a famous person owned it. If the book has personal notations in the margins, the value goes up even more. A few rare books are "sleepers" that don't betray their true value to the uninformed -- these are the books you might find at a yard sale for $1, then sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

If you'd like to know how much a Gutenberg Bible is worth, how many there are in the world and why it has such lofty status, this article has all the details, along with nine more of the world's rarest books -- including those sleepers you can find in the dusty shelves of used bookstores.

10. The Gutenberg Bible

Johannes Gutenberg experimented with movable type throughout the 1440s, using his own casting process to set type from an alloy he invented. He had printed some relatively unremarkable items before working on the Bible, which he first offered for sale in 1455 [source: University of Texas at Austin]. It is believed that 180 copies of the Bible were produced -- 135 on paper and 35 on vellum, or calfskin. Today, only 48 copies are known to exist, some of them only partial, almost all of them in the hands of museums, universities and libraries [source: Clausen Books].

Gutenberg Bibles are rare and valuable for a number of reasons. In addition to their scarcity and status as the first of their kind, they're books of exceptional quality. Gutenberg used finely crafted paper and vellum, as well as a special ink of his own invention that has remained vivid for centuries. Most of the Bibles were sold in folio form, or as loose pages that the owner would then have bound in the style of his or her desire. That gives each Gutenberg Bible a certain uniqueness. Each Bible is usually split into two volumes, with the Old Testament filling the first volume, and the second volume containing the remainder of the Old Testament and the entire New Testament.


How much is a Gutenberg Bible worth? A perfect copy hasn't changed hands in years, but in 2007, a single leaf went on sale for $74,000. In 1978, Christie's auctioned off a perfect two-volume Bible for $2.2 million. Another Christie's auction in 1987 transferred an incomplete version to a Japanese company for $4.9 million [source: Clausen Books]. As long ago as 1897, a perfect vellum Bible sold for $20,000 [source: NY Times].

9. Shakespeare's First Folio

A Sotheby's employee (very, very carefully) displays a first edition of William Shakespeare's "First Folio" before auction in 2006.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

No author has exerted more influence on Western literature than William Shakespeare. His works have been performed and read around the world and continue to be revered almost 400 years after his death in 1616. The First Folio is a remarkable book because it is the first authoritative collection of Shakespeare's plays ever published.

The works were compiled by Shakespeare's friends and business partners, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who helped run his theater company. For this reason, they had access to early drafts, notes and stage directions, as well as direct knowledge of the author's work [source: British Library]. For historians and fans of the Bard's plays, the First Folio is the best representation of Shakespeare's writing, unadulterated by editors or modern translations.


An estimated 750 copies of the Folio were printed in 1622 and 1623. It contains 36 plays -- which includes almost every play Shakespeare is thought to have written. Many of the plays were published for the first time in the Folio, which is superior to earlier quartos, or abridged reproductions of single plays. However, the First Folio isn't perfect itself: Some plays have lines altered or deleted to fit the book, and each copy has a variety of typographical errors.

Today, many theater companies prefer to use the First Folio versions instead of modern editions, and reprints of the First Folio make these easy to access. You can even find digital versions of it for free. However, the rarity of original editions combined with Shakespeare's reputation make this one of the most valuable rare books in the world. In 2006, a copy was auctioned by Sotheby's for 2.8 million British pounds (roughly $4.2 million) [source: BBC].

8. Edgar Allan Poe's 'Tamerlane and Other Poems'

A small collection of poems by American poet Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) is notable for a number of reasons. Poe was one of the first widely renowned American authors, and is considered one of the earliest writers of stories with macabre, supernatural themes.

The first book Poe ever published was called "Tamerlane and Other Poems." The title piece is about a Turkish warlord who forsakes his true love to build an empire but later regrets the decision. It isn't one of his greatest works, but only about 50 copies were printed -- and one recently sold for more than $600,000 [source: Examiner].


What makes "Tamerlane" really exciting for the average book collector is that, for some reason, Poe wanted it published anonymously. The cover lists the author simply as, "a Bostonian." That makes it possible that someone acquired a previously unknown copy from a relative without realizing what it was, or sold it to a used bookstore that also failed to recognize its value. In other words, there just may be a copy of this rare work sitting on a dusty shelf somewhere with a sign that reads, "All Books $1," waiting for someone to find it.

7. Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester

An employee of the American Museum of Natural History admires two pages from Leonardo da Vinci's famed Codex Leicester in 1996.
Richard Drew/AP Images

The Codex Leicester is a notebook of scientific observations produced by Leonardo da Vinci between 1506 and 1510 [source: American Museum of Natural History]. It differs from the other previously mentioned books in that it was never published or printed in any quantity. It is literally a one-of-a-kind book, handwritten by da Vinci himself.

Da Vinci was a genius whose scientific observations were matched only by his innovative inventions and artistic talent. The Codex is a direct look at his observations and thought processes. It isn't in book form -- the 18 leaves are separated, though they could fold together to form a 72-page book. Like many of da Vinci's works not intended for publication, it was written in mirror-hand: All the letters are reversed, and the writing goes from right to left. It appears "normal" when viewed in a mirror. Many diagrams and sketches are included alongside the text. The subject matter ranges from astronomy to fluid dynamics.


The Codex is named after a previous owner (the Earl of Leicester), although it was renamed the Codex Hammer when American businessman Armand Hammer purchased it. Bill Gates bought it in 1994 and changed it back to its old name. Gates paid a whopping $30.8 million for it, making the Codex Leicester the most expensive book in the world [source: CBC].

6. John James Audubon's 'Birds of America'

John James Audubon was a naturalist and painter whose love of the natural world has made his name virtually synonymous with the act of observing and learning about wildlife. In fact, the Audubon Society is named after him. In 1820, he began painting birds in an attempt to paint every single avian species in North America. Audubon eventually completed 435 life-size bird paintings; Robert Havell Jr. engraved the works. To accommodate the size of the paintings, the engravings were printed on the largest sized paper available at the time -- known as double-elephant -- leading to the collection's nickname, "The Double-Elephant Folio."

The paintings weren't issued in book form, but rather sent to subscribers, several at a time. This is partly why so few complete copies remain -- about 120, by most counts. They're often collected and bound into a series of volumes. A full set would've cost about $1,000 when they were printed. Today, individual plates sell for thousands of dollars, and a full collection sold in 2000 for $8.8 million, making it one of the most expensive printed books in the world [source: Princeton Audubon].


The New York Historical Society has all the original watercolor paintings produced by Audubon for the book.

5. Ptolemy's 'Geographia'

A copy of Ptolemy's "Geographia" on display at the New York Public Library in 2005.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Claudius Ptolemy was a scientist who lived around the year A.D.100. He produced several significant works that preserved much of the ancient world's scientific knowledge. His ideas and practices came into vogue again during the Renaissance.

One of his major works was titled "Geographia," later renamed "Cosmographia." In it, he outlined his principles of geography and cartography, then provided extensive maps of the world as he knew it at the time. Although the maps were very inaccurate by today's standards, they were a major source of the European view of the world during that period.


Printing hadn't been invented when Ptolemy produced the work, and many of his hand-drawn maps were lost because of the difficult manual copying process. In the 15th century, "Cosmographia" appeared in Europe and was printed in a variety of editions, with some maps restored and reproduced with engravings, and some more modern maps included to update it [source: Newberry Library]. The quality and contents of these Renaissance editions can vary greatly, but often fetch around $20,000 [source: Christie's]. That said, printed first editions have sold for $4 million [source: Forbes]. An original version from Ptolemy's era -- if found -- would be priceless.

4. John Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion'

John Calvin wrote about theology during the Protestant Reformation, a historical era during which sweeping changes pulled the once monolithic Christian religion into many splinter sects. Calvin's writing career came after the initial break -- his work underpinned the popularization of religious reform. Today, numerous religious denominations consider themselves Calvinists.

"Institutes of the Christian Religion" is a major work intended to provide guidance and commentary for readers of Biblical scripture. It was first printed in Latin in the 1530s, and later printed in English. In fact, the original title, "Institutio Christianae Religionis," is often a source of controversy, as to whether the English title is a proper translation.


A Latin first edition published in 1536 sold in 2006 for $720,000 [source: Forbes].

3. Arthur Rimbaud's 'A Season in Hell'

French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote "A Season in Hell" at the tail end of a tempestuous relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine. It's a lengthy poem broken into several sections, and much of it seems to be fueled by Rimbaud's use of hashish, absinthe and alcohol. It's a highly influential work, impacting the development of the Symbolist and Surrealist movements. Rimbaud published it in 1873 [source: Harvard].

A first edition signed by Rimbaud and inscribed to Verlaine was sold for $644,000 in 2006 [source: Forbes].


2. The Sarajevo Haggadah

A Haggadah is a Jewish religious text that tells the story of the Passover Seder and explains the seder ritual. Reading a Haggadah and performing the ritual is a key part of Jewish religious worship.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a handwritten and illustrated book that was probably created in the 14th century. It's an illuminated manuscript, which means the pages are decorated with copper and gold [source:].


While the Sarajevo Haggadah is remarkable simply for its craftsmanship, beauty and rarity -- the illustrations depict Bible scenes in rich color -- it's also led a full and fascinating life. Much of its history is murky, but it resurfaced in the 1890s when a Spanish shepherd tried to sell it to provide for his family [source: Carleton College]. The Sarajevo Museum purchased it, but the Nazis invaded Croatia in 1941; museum officials managed to safely hide the Haggadah before it could be confiscated.

It was returned to the museum -- then managed another narrow escape in 1992 when thieves broke into the museum during the Bosnian War. They threw it on the floor, thinking it worthless. Police sent it to the Croatian National Bank to be stored in an underground facility, where it remained until the end of the war. Today it resides in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo [source: Bosnian Institute].

As a singular, historic book, the Sarajevo Haggadah is essentially priceless, but in 1991 it was appraised for insurance purposes when Spain requested it for a temporary display. The estimated value: $700 million [source: New York Times].

1. Fyodor Solntsev's 'Antiquities of the Russian State'

Artist Fyodor Solntsev's "Antiquities of the Russian State" depicted great works of that country's architecture, like the reka Bolshaya Neva in St. Petersburg.
Bob Stefko/Getty Images

This book is a perfect example of supply and demand. It's similar to Audubon's "Birds of America" in that it's a collection of Fyodor Solntsev's paintings. Instead of birds, Solntsev painted old suits of armor, architecture, religious icons, clothing and costumes worn by nobles and other culturally significant Russian treasures. The paintings were then collected and published as a seven-volume set in 1844. Here's where the supply part comes in: Only 600 sets were made [source: Kremlin].

The rarity of the work and lushness of the paintings alone make this book valuable, but in recent years, the Russian aristocracy has grown quite a bit. That new cash flow has increased demand for the few complete sets of "Drevnosti Rossiskago Gosudarstva" (the Russian title) still in existence. In 2006, a full set sold for $748,000 [source: Forbes].

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Museum of Natural History. "Leonardo's Codex Leicester: A Masterpiece of Science." (May 4, 2010)
  • BBC News. "Bard's first folio fetches £2.8m." July 13, 2006. (May 3, 2010)
  • British Library. "Shakespeare's First Folio." Accessed May 3, 2010. (May 3, 2010)
  • Carleton College. "The Sarajevo Haggadah." Gould Library. (May 4, 2010)
  • CBC News. "Bill Gates withholds Leonardo da Vinci manuscript over security concerns." Sept. 23, 2006. (May 4, 2010)
  • Christie's. "PTOLEMY (Claudius Ptolemaeus). Geographia universalis. Translated from Greek into Latin by Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530), edited by Sebastian Münster (1488-1552). Basel: Heinrich Petri, August 1545." (May 4, 2010)
  • Clausen Books. "Gutenberg Bible Census." (May 3, 2010)
  • Cohen, Roger. "Bosnia Jews Glimpse Book and Hope." New York Times, April 16, 1995. (May 3, 2010)
  • Danzer, Gerland. "Cartographic Images of the World on the Eve of the Discoveries." The Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography, 1988. (May 4, 2010)
  • Eaves, Elisabeth. "The 10 Most Expensive Books Of 2006." Forbes, Jan. 16, 2007. (May 4, 2010)
  • Harry Ransom Center. "The Printing of the Bible." University of Texas at Austin. (May 3, 2010)
  • Jergovic, Miljenco. "The act of saving the Sarajevo Haggadah as Australian soap opera." Bosnian Institute, Dec. 7, 2009. (May 4, 2010)
  • Kirk, Connie Ann. "Edgar Allan Poe's rare 'Tamerlane and Other Poems' sells for $662,500 in Christie's auction." Dec. 4, 2009. (May 4, 2010)
  • New York Times. "The Sale of Gutenberg's Bible." July 3, 1897. (May 3, 2010)
  • Moscow Kremlin. "'Antiquities of the Russian State' in oeuvre of F.G. Solntsev." (May 4, 2010)
  • Poetry @ Harvard. "Poetry in French." (May 4, 2010)
  • Princeton Audubon. "Original Audubon/Havell Birds of America Prints." (May 4, 2010)
  • Zubrinic, Darko. "The Sarajevo Haggadah." (May 4, 2010)