Late last year a book sold in New York for a record-breaking amount – a whopping US$14.2 million. It was for America’s first printed book, a tiny Book of Psalms produced in 1640. There are only 11 copies left of The Bay Psalm Book from the original 1700 copies printed.
But it’s not the highest price that a book has ever reached. Three books surpass the price fetched by The Bay Psalm Book. The St Cuthbert Gospel went for US$14.3 million, the Magna Carta comes in second at US$21.3 million, and topping them all is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester from the 1500s, which sold for US$30.8 million. You can see the theme of religion here, but if you dig down a bit further into the lower millions you’ll find The Birds of America by John James Audubon, copies of which have sold from US$7.9 to US$11.5 million. A first printed edition of The Canterbury Tales reached $7.5 million while Don Quixote fetched only $1.5 million.
Dipping down into the thousands, online bookseller AbeBooks last year sold a copy of William Golding’s for $19 877. It was a first edition that included an envelope from Golding with a hand-written postcard inside: ‘Dear Miss Rhyder, Yes Lord of the Flies is the alleged translation of Beelzebub. I will sign your Nobel Speech if you send it. Yours sincerely William Golding.’
A recent first edition of J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye sold for US$8000. The more recently published Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie sold in July last year. Usually a first edition of this novel would find buyers at about the $4000 mark, but this edition – an uncorrected proof with a ‘rare and fragile’ original dustcover – sold for a tad over $14 000. It had more pages than the final published book, and the antiquarian bookseller said they could only imagine what it would have sold for if it had included Rushdie’s signature.
But don’t think that it’s only fiction that draws the big bucks. A worthy winner in the high-selling stakes was The Double Helix: A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA (1968). The signed first edition of James Watson’s book sold for $9500. Published in 1968, this book is a landmark title among science texts. But the book is a very human story and is much more than just a straight account of experiments and laboratories.
Children’s books can also be highly desirable to collectors. A copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sold for $1.4 million. Who knows what a complete collection of original signed copies of the ‘Harry Potter’ series would sell for today?
In October last year several volumes of The London Magazine, or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, dating from 1732 to 1756, sold for US$13 159. Previously a selection of 116 volumes, which included the first issue, sold for US$26 083. The magazine is – incredibly – still published today. It gives me great hope for gr! Will our July 2001 issue one day be worth a hefty sum?
But it’s not only books and magazines that are prized by book-loving collectors. A signed letter from the late American astronomer Carl Sagan has fetched US$4795 and a signed photograph of Ernest Hemingway has sold for US$8250.
Stories like these from auction houses and online auction sites make you wonder what you might discover in your own library or how worthwhile it might be to fossick through out-of-the-way secondhand bookshops. Is there a first edition in your library that could be worth a huge sum one day?
I’m not sure it matters to me. I am tantalised by the idea of it all, and I enjoy the thrill of buying an old first edition and adding it to my library. But it’s really most valuable to me if I also enjoy reading it.
Do you have any valuable or collectable books in your library? I’d love to hear about them.
Here’s to a busy reading year!