by Colleen White
It reads like something out of an Ocean’s film script: a team of well-trained thieves cut holes into reinforced glass, rappel 40-feet down from the ceiling, avoiding a maze of laser sensors and security alarms, and make off with almost $2.5 million of rare books. But that is exactly what happened in England when over 160 volumes were stolen from a warehouse in west London.
After hearing of such a daring and costly raid, we decided to check out some of the most valuable tomes in existence. With genres ranging from nature guides to children’s stories, the list shows that you really can’t judge (the value of) a book by its cover.
1. Birds of America by John James Audubon
Est. value: $7.9 – 11.5 million
Several copies of this volume have gone to auction in the past few years, always commanding prices in the millions. And it’s not hard to see why. From The Guardian: “Only 120 complete sets of Audubon’s 435 hand-colored, life-sized engravings of America’s birds are believed to exist today” Hand painted in the late 1820s and measuring over three feet in height and running to four volumes, The Birds of America is as much a work of art as it is a book.
A copy of the first edition that was at an auction in 2012 went for over $7 million, while a 2010 auction saw another copy go for $11.5 million. With only 13 privately owned copies remaining, we may see more eye-watering auction prices in the future.
2. The Tales of Beetle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
Est. value: $3.98 million
Yes, that J.K. Rowling. In 2007, the Harry Potter author created seven handwritten and illustrated copies of the children’s book that is referenced in the final Harry Potter novel. Rowling gave six of the copies to friends and colleagues, but the final copy was auctioned off for charity, fetching a price of $3.98 million.
Of course, if you can’t afford to drop a cool 4-mill on books, you could just buy the story in paperback…for $4.
3. Gutenberg Bible
Est. value: $10.3 million
It is rare that “mass-produced” and “extremely valuable” are used in the same sentence, but that’s exactly the case with this entry on the list. The Gutenberg Bible is valuable because it made history as the first book printed using movable metal type back in 1455, revolutionizing the way we produced and consumed books and securing its status as a cultural and historical icon.
There are only 49 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible – and only 31 of those are complete editions – so it’s rare that copies go up for sale, the last one going up for auction in 1978. In addition to the scarcity and age of the book, the Gutenberg Bible is considered one of the most beautiful prints made, adding aesthetic value to its legendary status.
4. Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies
(a.k.a. First Folio) by William Shakespeare
Est. value: $8.3 million
Published in 1623, seven years after William Shakespeare’s death, the First Folio as its come to be known was the first published volume to contain nearly all of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, for a total of 36 works. Scholars argue that it contains the only reliable versions of text for at least 20 of the plays, and it is invaluable in terms of research and linguistic study for comparing versions of previously published works.
Of the estimated 750 copies from the first edition of the First Folio, there are 234 surviving copies, most of which are owned by libraries and museums. In 2001, a copy was released for auction, where it fetched $6.16 million.
5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Est. value: $2.1 million
Carroll’s children story has become a modern classic, but that’s not what makes the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so valuable. The original print of the novel ran 2,000 copies, but the illustrator, John Tenniel, was “entirely dissatisfied with the printing of the pictures.” After some back and forth, Carroll asked that the initial run be recalled and the advanced copies returned to him, at significant personal expense.
As a result, only 22 copies of the initial 2,000 remain, and so have reached legendary status. One of six privately owned copies went up for auction in 2016, fetching over $2 million.
6. Action Comics 1 by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
Est. value: $3.2 million
For this entry on our list, it’s not the book itself, but the quality that makes all the difference. Comic books are notoriously hard to preserve, and so despite the popularity of Action Comics 1, relatively few copies in good condition remain.
That’s what made the 2014 eBay auction of the comic so valuable. When the first comic to feature Superman, Clark Kent, and Louis Lane went up for bid, it wasn’t just as a sentimental tribute to the start of the comic book hero. The copy was listed in near mint condition, as a book that “looks and feels like it just came off the newsstand. It is supple, the colors are deep and rich and the quality of the white pages is amazing for a comic that is 76 years old.”