A little careful splurging never harmed anyone and is good for the soul too; this is why we celebrate National Splurge Day in style each year on June 18. Held to encourage us to, you guessed it, crack open our wallets and splurge. In celebration of this unique holiday, explore some of the most expensive books ever sold and take a look at what makes them so valuable, bringing people like Bill Gates to spend tens of millions for a copy. You’ll find that most of the books on this list are extremely rare, but some are also incredibly important historical documents, which is why they’re so valuable.
Ready to do some bookstore window shopping?
Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci
Original Price: $30.8 million
Adjusted for 2023: $63 million
The most expensive book ever sold was the Codex Leicester, which was bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $30.8 million, which was equivalent to about $54.4 million in 2021. The Codex Leicester was essentially Leonardo da Vinci’s science diary. Created in 1510, it contains da Vinci’s drawings, theories, and observations on things like the movement of water, the luminosity of the moon, and why fossils of sea creatures can be found on mountains.
After his purchase, Gates had the Codex digitally scanned, then released some of the images as screensavers and wallpapers for Windows 98 Plus.
The Book of Mormon, 1830
Original Price: $35 million
Adjusted for 2023: $43.3 million
Holding the record as the most expensive religious text ever sold is the original printer’s draft of the Book of Mormon, hand-written following the dictation of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith. Considered one of the central texts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), the Book of Mormon was purportedly derived from Smith’s translation of text found inscribed on golden tablets discovered near his Palmyra, New York, home in the 1820s.
This original binding of the manuscript stayed within the church’s possession until its sale in 1903; the 2017 purchase, then, marks the manuscript’s fitting return to the LDS archives. Such formative texts can achieve impressive auction prices even when they are not so unique. For example, at a 2018 auction, a first-edition publication of the Book of Mormon sold for $77,500 ($93,627.95 today).
The Magna Carta, 13th Century
Original Price: $21.3 million
Adjusted for 2023: $31.1 million
While not exactly a book, this antique manuscript is assuredly one of the most expensive documents ever sold. Issued 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.
While the initial impact of the document was mixed, the Magna Carta would be a document to which historians and politicians would point centuries later as one of the foundational pillars of the legal system as we know it today. In 2007 David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, paid $21.3 million to ensure that a 1297 version of the historical document would stay in the United States, whose own government was heavily influenced by the principles laid out in the charter.
Check out Dan Jones’ book Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty to see the immense impact this document had on history.
The Gutenberg Bible, 1455
Original Price: $5.4 million
Adjusted for 2023: $14.4 million
An iconic text for its connections with the origins of printing, an edition of The Gutenberg Bible charted new territory for record prices of antique manuscripts in 1987 when it sold for $5.4 million at a Christie’s New York auction. The creator, Johannes Gutenberg, is widely recognized as an essential founder of the field of printing and developed groundbreaking strategies for movable type.
This volume used this new technology to create copies of this religious text for wider circulation than had been possible in earlier eras—when hand-scribed illuminated manuscripts were the limits of such devotional texts—but only a few survive to the modern-day. With fewer than fifty copies of The Gutenberg Bible in existence today, and with only half of those reflecting the complete text, this antique book was sure to sell fast. Because there was no Gutenberg Bible in Japan in 1987, a Japanese bookseller, the Maruzen Company, bought this incomplete copy.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Original Price: $7.5 million
Adjusted for 2023: $13.9 million
One of the most celebrated texts of English history, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales turned heads again at a Christie’s auction when a first edition of the text sold for more than $7 million. It is one of only a few surviving copies from the 1477 edition printed by William Caxton, a purported pioneer of the printing press in 15th-century England, that has survived to the present day. This copy is in exceptional condition and illuminates the brilliance and bawdiness of Chaucer’s Middle English prose marvelously. This copy was so coveted because only a dozen known copies of the first edition were in existence. It was sold in 1998 to the highest bidder, the late British billionaire and philanthropist John Paul Getty Jr.
Shakespeare’s First Folio by William Shakespeare
Original Price: $9.98 million
Adjusted for 2023: $11.69 million
William Shakespeare’s First Folio—a collection of plays published in 1623—is one of the most coveted books in the English language, and it has a price to match. Only around 56 complete First Folios are known to exist. Within its pages are 36 of the famed writer’s plays, neatly organized with the input of John Heminge and Henry Condell, who were close associates of Shakespeare’s and helped to compile these writings following Shakespeare’s demise. This edition, of which only six remain today, was assured to sell at top value despite the financial impacts of the raging global pandemic and far surpassing the sale price of the last copy to appear, which was purchased by Paul Allen in 2001 for $6.166 million.
In 2016, a set of the first four editions of Shakespeare’s folios fetched $3.68 million at auction. That included a first edition of the First Folio that had previously not been known to exist. But in 2020, new records were set. For a complete copy of the 1623 book, an anonymous buyer paid $9.98 million.
For more unique bookish holidays that you can celebrate, click here!