5 Most Expensive Books Ever Sold At Auction

Written by Urszula Frick

For any book-lover a visit in an old antique bookstore is like a magical experience. Touching and looking through the old, dusty volumes, breathing in the specific sweet smell of old paper and ink, searching for old prints and finally finding one of the earliest editions of your favourite book is very exciting. But what would happen if you would find a book that is priceless? Read about 5 most expensive books ever sold!

Books, Maps & Manuscripts

Old books on the shelf

5. The St Cuthbert Gospel, $14 million

The St Cuthbert Gospel, also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel or the St Cuthbert Gospel of St John, is an early 7th-century pocket gospel book, written in Latin. This  oldest preserved European book. It had been buried with its writer, St. Cuthbert, in 687 and rediscovered in 1104 when St. Cuthbert’s remains were moved from a grave to a shrine.  

Its finely decorated leather binding is the earliest known Western bookbinding to survive, and both the 94 vellum folios and the binding are in outstanding condition for a book of this age. With a page size of only 138 by 92 millimetres (5.4 in × 3.6 in), the St Cuthbert Gospel is one of the smallest surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The manuscript was purchase in 2012 by the British Library in London for $14 million (today’s  $15.95 million).

St Cuthbert Gospel, ancient medieval leather book cover, medieval book binding

The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel. Northumbrian, c. 698, British Library, Image Public Domain

Page fom medieval manuscript, St Cuthbert Gospel, medieval illumination

Folio 11 of the Gospel of St John in the St Cuthbert Gospel. Northumbrian, c. 698, British Library, Image Public Domain

4. The Gospels of Henry the Lion, $11.7 million

The Gospels of Henry the Lion held the title of the most expensive book in the world until Bill Gates purchased the Codex Leicester in 1994.

The gospel book was commissioned by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, for adorning the altar of the Virgin Mary in the Brunswick Cathedral. It dates back to 1188 and is  considered a masterpiece of Romanesque book illumination of the whole 12th century. The gospel book, preserved completely intact, contains 266 pages with text of the four gospels decorated with miniatures and  and 50 full page illuminations, is kept in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, and for security reasons is displayed only once every two years.

 In 1983, it was sold at an Sotheby’s auction in London to a group of bidders that included the German federal government and other private donors for  $11.7 million (today’s $30.73 million)

Related: How to Value Books, Maps and Manuscripts

Page from the Gospel Book of Henry the Lion, medieval manuscript illumination, illustration

Page from the Gospel Book of Henry the Lion, 1188, Image: Public Domain

Page from the Wedding of Henry the Lion, medieval manuscript illumination, illustration

"Henry the Lion at his wedding to Matilda of England". Illumination from the Gospel Book of Henry the Lion, Image: Public Domain

3. Magna Carta

Written in  1215, the Magna Carta is a royal charter of rights signed by King John of England. It was the first document to officially declare that the king and his government were not above the law. Its intention was to prevent monarchies from exploiting their power, and to place limits on royal authority. ​​Magna Carta still today is an important symbol of liberty, often cited by politicians and campaigners, and is held in great respect by the British and American legal communities. It was described by Lord Denning as "the greatest constitutional document of all times—the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot

In 2007 David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, paid $21.3 million (today’s $26.9 million)  to ensure that a 1297 version of the historic document would stay in the United States, whose own government was heavily influenced by the principles laid out in the charter.

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1297 Copy of Magna Carta, Great Charter manuscript

1297 version of the Magna Carta, on display in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., Image: Public Domain

2. The Book of Mormon, $35 million

The hand-written manuscript of The Book of Mormon is currently the most expensive religious manuscript ever sold. It was written 1830 by Joseph Smith as The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi, and used to print the earliest copies. It contains religious writings of ancient prophets who lived on the American continent and who explains the basis of Mormon’s religion. 

It was bought by the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for $35 million in 2017 (today’s $37.35 million).

Book of Mormon, original manuscript page from 1830

A page from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, 1830, Image: Public Domain

1. Codex Leicester, $30,802,500

The Codex Leicester  is named after Thomas Coke, who purchased it in 1917 and later became the Earl of Leicester. The volume contains a selection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci, written around 1510. The manuscript is the fifth on the list of the most expensive books in the world. In 1994 it was sold during Christie’s New York auction to Bill Gates for $30,802,500 (today's $54.4 million). 

The manuscript provides an insight into the world of Leonardo da Vinci, an ultimate Renaissance artist. It is written in his specific mirror writing and combines the art and the science through the illustrations and descriptions of artists ideas. The codex is written in Italian and consists of 36 sheets 29 × 22 cm in size bound in leather. Instead of being a structured publication it is rather a mixture of Leonardo's observations and theories on astronomy, the properties of water, rocks, and fossils, air, and celestial light.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Leicester, renaissance codex page

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Leicester, 1510, Image: Public Domain

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