The Most Expensive Books and Manuscripts in History

Most Expensive Books and Manuscripts in History

Throughout history, humans have recorded their knowledge, ideas, and stories in written form. As a result, books and manuscripts hold an important place in preserving history, ideas, and creativity. Some of these written works have commanded astronomical prices due to their rarity, significance, age, beauty or authorship. But what are some of the most expensive books and manuscripts ever sold?

Content Highlights:

  • The Codex Leicester by Da Vinci sold for $30.8 million, making it the most expensive book ever auctioned. Other record sales include the Gutenberg Bible ($5.4 million) and the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America ($14.2 million).
  • Age, rarity, beauty, significance, and authorship contribute to the extreme valuations commanded by the world’s most expensive books and manuscripts. Each holds immense historical, creative, or scientific importance.
  • From centuries-old religious texts to seminal scientific works, these written artifacts provide a window into human history and genius that is impossible to value. The astronomical sums paid reflect their irreplaceability.

The Most Expensive Books and Manuscripts in History:

The Leicester Codex by Leonardo da Vinci, $30.8 million

Onsidered the most valuable book in the world, this notebook was created by Leonardo da Vinci around 1506–1510. It contains his sketches and ideas ranging from the movement of water to the luminosity of the moon. Discovered in Italy in the 1960s, Bill Gates acquired it at a 1994 auction for a record-breaking $30.8 million. This masterpiece remains the most expensive book ever sold.

Codex Leicester is the ultimate manifestation of Da Vinci’s unparalleled genius and one of the most significant human achievements in art and science. Its pages contain a trove of invaluable insights into many subjects, distilling the thought processes of one of history’s brightest minds. That is why Codex Leicester has commanded such an astronomical price. In addition, you can also read an article on- 40 Must-Read Books to Add to Your Lifetime Reading List

The Gutenberg Bible: $5.4 million

The Gutenberg Bible, published in 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg, ushered in the era of movable type printing in Europe. Gutenberg produced about 180 copies, of which only 49 complete copies survive today. In 1987, one copy fetched $5.4 million at an auction—the highest price ever recorded for a printed book at the time. Such astronomical valuations underline its huge contribution to spreading knowledge. 

The Bay Psalm Book, $14.2 million

As the first book printed in what is now the United States (Cambridge, 1640), the Bay Psalm Book has huge significance. Of the 1,700 copies originally printed, only 11 remain. In November 2013, one copy was auctioned for $14.2 million—the highest price printed for any book to date. This seminal work laid the foundations for written knowledge in America.

Birds of America by John James Audubon, $11.6 million

In 2010, a first-edition copy of John James Audubon’s 19th-century masterpiece Birds of America sold for a record $11.6 million, making it the third most expensive book ever sold. Audubon’s life work was an ambitious attempt to paint and describe all birds in America. The result was a monument of naturalist art treasured by lovers of birds and books alike.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, $7.5 million

In 1998, a collection of Geoffrey Chaucer’s works containing The Canterbury Tales became the most expensive medieval manuscript ever sold, at £4.6 million ($7.5 million). As one of the best-known works of Middle English literature, this 1400 copy is of immense literary significance and one of the few remaining from the medieval period.

Rothschild Prayer Book, $13.4 million

This exquisitely illuminated prayer book was created in the early 16th century in the Netherlands. Brimming with colorful illustrations executed with painstaking detail, it is a shining exemplar of Flemish Renaissance art. In 2013, it was acquired by Australian billionaire Kerry Stokes for £8.8 million ($13.4 million), a record price for an illuminated manuscript. Additionally, you can also read about- 10 Chilling Japanese Books to Read During Halloween

The first permanent photograph: $775,000

Nicephore Niepce created what is considered the first permanent retained photographic image in 1826 with his heliographic process. In 2002, the artifact, no bigger than a modern passport photo, made history again when it was auctioned for $775,000—the highest price paid for a photograph at the time.

First Folio by William Shakespeare: $6.16 million

The First Folio is the first published collection containing most of William Shakespeare’s 36 plays. Roughly 750 copies were originally produced, less than a quarter of which survive. As the earliest source for nearly half of Shakespeare’s works, it is vastly important for scholars and lovers of literature. In October 2020, one copy was sold for almost $10 million—the highest price on record for any work of literature. 

Magna Carta, $21.3 million

Bearing King John’s seal from 1215 AD, a 1297 version of Magna Carta LIBERTATUM sold for $21.3 million in 2007, breaking the record for any historical document. This seminal agreement between King John and the English barons protected basic human rights and influenced constitutions worldwide. Its cultural value is impossible to quantify.

On the Shoulders of Giants by Sir Isaac Newton: $2 million

A first-edition copy of Newton’s opus On the Shoulders of Giants sold at Christie’s in December 2013 for just over $2 million. Most surviving copies of Newton’s work are not first editions because he gave many away to colleagues. That rarity gives huge distinction to this 1676 masterpiece by one of history’s greatest scientists.


From centuries-old handwritten texts like Chaucer’s Tales to seminal scientific works by Newton and Da Vinci, the world’s most expensive books and manuscripts represent the pinnacle of human creativity and genius. Their outlandish price tags reflect their unparalleled cultural value and huge intellectual impact throughout history. As some of the rarest surviving artifacts documenting the progression of ideas and knowledge worldwide, they provide an invaluable window into history that continues to command record sums at auction. Though impossible to accurately value, these written treasures represent creative and intellectual heights unlikely to be repeated.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the most expensive book ever sold?

The most expensive book ever sold at auction is the Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci, purchased by Bill Gates for over $30 million in 1994.

Why are some books and manuscripts so expensive?

Age, condition, rarity, beauty, historical significance, scientific impact, and authorship all contribute to the extreme prices paid for remarkable books and manuscripts. Their cultural and intellectual importance is impossible to quantify.

What is the most expensive American book?

The Bay Psalm Book sold for over $14 million in 2013, the highest price ever paid for a book printed in America. As the first book printed in the colonies in 1640, it has huge historical importance.

Which author has the most expensive book?

Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, bought for over $30 million in 1994, is the most expensive book by a single author. This notebook exemplifies Da Vinci’s genius, spanning art, science, engineering and more.

What makes illuminated manuscripts valuable?

Illuminated manuscripts like the Rothschild Prayer Book owe their immense value to their artistic beauty and huge significance in medieval art and culture. Meticulous decorations were painstakingly added by hand, making surviving copies extremely rare.