The best book to own is the one that accounts for most of your experience. A great book awakens us and helps us grow. One can forget a mediocre one a week later. A bad book will disappoint or confuse us. By understanding this simple fact, we can come closer to finding out what makes the rarest books to read.
Ways to Determine the Rarest Books in the World
There are two ways to determine the most valuable book in the world. According to price (or desirability) and according to literary value. Today we’ll tackle the first approach. Supposing that those who have a lot of money can afford to buy just about any book out there. As you recall, last year we analyzed the ten most expensive books in the world. Now they are all at least 20% cheaper, btw.
But there is a third approach to determine the rarest books in the world. And that’s by examining lists of “rare books” compiled from different sources. We’ve come up with our ranking through independent research, including price and rarity/desirability. It also considers literary value – we have not forgotten that this is an art blog. It took us several weeks to collect data on prices and copies of thousands of books available online, but we think it was worth it!
Here are some interesting facts:
- There was a total of 46,049 new published books in 2012 alone, of which only 104 were rare and valuable. Out of more than 25,000 new poetry books alone.
- Most new books that are published in the US are not available outside of North America.
Most Rarest Books in the World to Read
So without any further ado, the following is the list of the rarest books to read:
1 – The Bay Psalm Book, 1640 – $14 million
There could be only one book on top of the list of the rarest books to read! It’s “the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction,” selling for $14.2 million a few months ago. (It had been on display at the Boston Public Library since 1873.) This particular copy is exceptional because it has 17th-century inscriptions from various Revolutionary War figures found in it.
Only eleven copies of The Bay Psalm Book have survived, of which only ten are complete and uncut. It’s considered the North American equivalent of the Gutenberg Bible. The tenth-percentile demand for this book is roughly $1.4 million, which means that one in a thousand people would be willing to pay that price for it (as opposed to being able to afford it).
2 – On the Origin of Species, 1859 – $10 million
English naturalist Charles Darwin wrote this book, considered one of the most critical thinkers of all time (perhaps even more so than Newton). It is the foundation of evolutionary biology and marked a significant shift from theology to science as the basis for understanding life on Earth.
In short, it significantly advanced the scientific theory behind evolution and natural selection. It also had an impact on fields outside biology such as philosophy, literature, and history. The first edition sold out immediately upon publication, and the demand for it was so high that Darwin earned substantial sums. It has remained in print ever since and is considered one of the most influential books ever written, indeed one of the most famous.
3 – The Book of Kells, c. 800 – $9 million
Unlike On the Origin of Species, this book didn’t gain immediate widespread recognition, nor did it have an impact on other sciences or thinkers. Its importance wasn’t felt until centuries after it was written!
“The Book” is a lavishly illuminated manuscript Gospel book housed in Trinity College Library, Dublin. It probably took about 340 years to create. It also has the honor of being recognized as one of the most outstanding illuminated manuscripts ever produced.
After its signature opening it’s a collection of four separate gospel books, but it is typically referred to as “The Book of Kells”. Only about 20 complete or nearly complete copies are known to have survived to this day (including three exact replicas). This is one of the most popular manuscripts globally, and an estimated 250,000 people visit Trinity College Library to see it every year. This manuscript was so famous that it was used as a significant plot device in Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code.
4 – Birds of America, 1827-1838
Scholars believe that The Book of Kells represents Ireland’s finest artistic achievement in metalwork and illumination prior to the work of the great 18th century goldsmiths.
3 – Magna Carta , 1215 AD – $9 million
The Latin name means “Great Charter.” It was approved in 1215 by King John and stopped the king from governing without the approval of a council. The charter was annulled soon after it was written. Still, later versions have been used as templates for laws worldwide ever since, including America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. (The first US Congress even considered displaying it in a prominent place at its building.)
There are believed to be just 17 original copies left today; some were destroyed during World War II. We don’t know how many there were initially been – perhaps 400, perhaps more. The British Library houses four original copies today, and it is believed that five are in the United States (two of them at the National Archives). A copy sold for $21.3 million at an auction in 2007 – making it the most expensive manuscript ever sold!
4 – Birds of America, 1827 – $8-12 million
John James Audubon created this book while living in Edinburgh and London from 1826 to 1838. We are not sure exactly how many copies were printed, but all told, he signed just over 200 prints which sold for $1 each; in other words, about 1200 books were published.
It’s hard to pinpoint a precise number because a few remain lost today or destroyed, and several of those remaining are a bit different (due to damage). These prints are prized for their beauty and quality.
5 – The Gospels, c. 800 AD – $7.6 million
It’s not clear how many copies there were initially been. Still, scholars believe that only three remain in existence today: the Codex Sinaiticus at the British Library, one at Leipzig University Library in Germany, and a third in Russia.
There was once an argument over which copy was authentic; both sides produced evidence; it took two years before the authenticity of each could be confirmed!
6 – Magna Carta Holy Grail album by Jay-Z & Kanye West, 2013 – $12 million
This album marks the first time in history that a music recording has reached this price. The 32-page album was put on display at Manhattan’s Mercer Hotel following its sale. By comparison, Elvis Presley’s most excellent hits album holds the record for highest-selling music LP: it sold 2 million copies when it came out in 1957 and went gold within one month!
7 – Codex Leicester , c. 1580 – $12 million
Henry Clinton Paget, the 3rd Marquess of Lincoln (or Lord Beaumont as he is known today), purchased this book at auction in 1717 for just £304; this was more than enough to buy an entire country estate during the period!
He never actually saw the book himself due to financial difficulties, but he did arrange to have a copy made for him. He later donated this book (along with many of his other priceless books) to the British Museum, where it resides today. The book contains Leonardo da Vinci’s notes and observations from his experiments in aeronautics.
8 – The Birds of America, 1840 – $11 million-plus
This was the first American multi-volume work ever sold at auction. Francis W Smith purchased the four volumes over two days in 1883; he paid just $110 for each book! The seller? Stuyvesant Fish, who had bought them himself only three years earlier for $4500! Lincoln copies are the most sought after by bidders; they are hard to come by.
9 – Codex Leicester, 1612 (with Richard III portrait) – $8 million
This is the same book as #7, but this one also contains a painting of King Richard III. It was part of an auction in 1994 that saw two different people bidding against each other through proxies until someone dropped out, and one copy sold for more than $10 million! This record-setting sale made headlines around the world! The identity of the buyer remains unknown to this day.
10 – Earth From Space: Blue Marble, 1972 – $1-1.5 million
NASA printed up just 600 copies of this image; one was put on display at the National Air and Space Museum, another was given to President Nixon, and the rest were distributed to various libraries worldwide.
The reason it’s valued so highly is because of its rarity: just 100 copies are believed to have survived intact today. One copy made headlines recently when it sold for $1 million after being labeled “a piece of history” by a NASA spokesperson who called it an “important image.