January 16, 2015

Fetish-vessels of cash: the world's most expensive books

You may have noticed that I am not a fan of "Best books of the year" lists. Not because I don't enjoy recommending books; it's that "best" that gets me, because "And how should I presume?", to borrow Prufrock's refrain.

syndetics-lcHow should anyone presume to identify the best? Best for whom? One of my most pleasurable book memories is of chuckling my way through The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker's paean to procrastination, but a non-procrastinator would undoubtedly find the book a waste of time (worst possible insult). Or, best for which station on our route? If your parents are still alive and on top of things, Roz Chast's memoir Can't we talk about something more pleasant? may seem a grim read, whereas for me it brimmed with poignancy.  "Best" is so subjective!

Did you know that AbeBooks -- the online marketplace of new and used books whose claims of offering "the greatest selection of books found anywhere" I firmly believe (it's actually a network of bookshop websites) -- produces every year an intriguing booklist based on a totally objective formula? Not "best" but "most", and specifically, most money. Which books did avid collectors spend the most for on AbeBooks?

An example of a Les MaÎtres de L'Affiche poster
(AbeBooks)
For 2014, the list was headed by a five-volume collection of a monthly illustrated French publication Les Maîtres de L'Affiche, or "Masters of the Poster", published between 1895 and 1900, which fetched US$ 43,350. Half the top ten were in fact collections of journals, treatises, or encyclopedias.

The other half, well, who would have thought that Das Kapital itself would one day become some rich capitalist's fine fetish-vessel of cash? An 1867 edition sold for US$ 40,000. The others were a first edition of Call for the dead, John le Carré's first novel and debut of the spy George Smiley (US$ 22,500); a 1969 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Salvador Dali who had also signed it (US$ 20,000); a first-edition A Farewell to Arms inscribed by Ernest Hemingway (US$ 18,000); and a collection of Salman Rushdie first editions (US$ 16,162).

You can see all top 50 titles on the AbeBooks website.

And what is the most expensive book ever sold on AbeBooks? A first edition of ... The Hobbit, which went for US$ 65,000.


Pre-movie dust jacket. (Abebooks)

But of course the really huge sales, the million dollar and more ones, aren't made online. The author of the aforementioned Das Kapital affirmed that private property makes people stupid? Well, not that stupid! When you're spending that kind of money, you want to see what you're getting.

Here's a list of the ten most expensive books ever purchased -- usually at auction, where I expect serious bidders (up to your imagination how the Auction House would determine this) would have been able, duly supervised, to hold the book, as long as they had white gloves on, of course. You might want to imagine you are wearing a pair as you peruse it.

List of the ten most expensive book purchases in the world


1. The Codex Leicester, Leonardo da Vinci - US$ 30.8 million

Bill Gates bought this 72 page notebook filled with Leonardo da Vinci's handwritten scientific musings at an auction in 1994. It seems incredible to me that something like this could be in private hands at all, even though the do-gooding Mr Gates did scan it and turn it into a screensaver anyone could enjoy, as long as they were users of Microsoft windows.





2. St Cuthbert Gospel - US$ 14.3 million
 
Lots of superlatives here. Described by the British Library as "one of the world's most significant books", the St Cuthbert Gospel could actually be considered the world's most expensive book, as the Codex Leicester is technically a paper document.  This 7th-century pocket gospel book is the earliest known Western bookbinding to survive, and, with a page size of only 138 by 92 mm, one of the smallest surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. From 1979 it was on long-term loan from the British province of the Jesuit order to the British Library, which in July 2011 launched a fundraising campaign to buy the book for £9 million. Less than a year later, in April 2012, it was announced that the purchase had been completed and the book was now British Library. Restores your faith in the world.


3. The Bay Psalm book - US$ 14.2 million

This psalter, or book of psalms, is one of just 11 surviving copies of 1,700 which were printed in 1640 -- the first book printing in what became the United States. It belonged to the Old South Church in Boston and was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $14.2 million in November 2013. It was purchased by financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein who plans to loan it to various libraries across the United States. Well done, David!







4. The Rothschild Prayerbook - US$ 13.4 million 

A 16th century Flemish illuminated manuscript book of hours which was "confiscated" from the Rothschild family immediately after the German annexation of Austria in 1938. The Austrian government finally returned the book to the Rothschilds in 1999, and it was sold by Christie's that same year for £8,580,000 (then US$ 13,400,000), still the world record auction price for an illuminated manuscript. The prayerbook was offered for sale again at Christie's in 2014 and purchased for £8,195,783. The anonymous bidder was eventually revealed as Australian businessman Kerry Stokes, but the Prayerbook remains unrevealed, part of Stokes's private collection in Perth.


5. The Gospels of Henry the Lion, Order of Saint Benedict — US$ 11.7 million

A masterpiece of the 12th century Romanesque illuminated manuscript which the German government purchased from Sotheby’s in 1983.



cover of Birds of America via Wikimedia Commons
6. Birds of America, James Audubon — US$ 11.5 million

One of America's favourite books, and how could it not be, many Birds of America appear on lists of expensive books. This complete first edition sold at Sotheby's in 2010. Many also are the ingenious ways libraries holding copies share them with the public, eg the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has a daily "page turning" event at 3:15 p.m. in the Academy's Ewell Sale Stewart Library. 


7. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer — US$ 7.5 million

Of the dozen known copies of the 1477 first edition, this copy, sold by Christie's in 1998, was the last to be held privately. It was originally purchased for £6 by Earl Fitzwilliam at the sale of the library of John Ratcliffe, a chandler, in 1776. 

cover of First Folio, via Wikimedia commons

8. First Folio, William Shakespeare — US$ 6.1 million

The First Folio’s original price was a single pound (one or two more for a leather-bound copy). Now, only 228 (out of the original 750) survive, and it's one of the most highly prized finds among book collectors. This sale was in 2001, to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Auckland Libraries has the only First Folio in New Zealand (in fact, it has all four folios). Sir George Grey bought it for the library for £85 (after turning down one in perfect condition priced at £255) in 1894. 


9. The Gutenberg Bible — US$ 4.9 million

A then-record price from 1987. Only 48 Gutenberg Bibles — the first books to be printed with movable type — exist in the world.


cover of Traite des arbres fruitiers from Wikimedia commons10. Traité des arbres fruitiers, [Treatise on Fruit Trees] by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau, illustrated by Pierre Antoine Poiteau and Pierre Jean François Turpin — US$ 4 million

There had to be a treatise. This one, dated 1768, is on fruit trees, 16 different varieties.  Only 16? The sale was made in 2006.




The important thing to remember, of course, is that these are not values, but prices. Putting a value on a book... ah, there we are again, back in the subjective! What is your most valuable book? Would it be the one which would fetch the highest price at an auction?

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 13:20
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