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Revealing... The Top Five most expensive printed books

The printing press has passed the Bible, the Bard and birds of America round the world

The printing press is often cited as one of the greatest inventions in history, allowing for the distribution of ideas in text and images which before could only happen on a much smaller scale as each copy of a book or manuscript required everything to be done again by hand.

A layman might imagine that printed books are therefore unlikely ever to be very valuable as with relative ease of copying the rarity decreases. But this is not always the case. Many collectors specialise in early printed texts and even modern works can be extremely rare, especially in good condition.

With that in mind, here's a look at the five most valuable printed books:

The Treatise on Fruit Trees

In fifth place is the Traité des Arbres Fruitiers by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau. Meaning 'Treatise on Fruit Trees', this is a five volume set illustrating 16 different species of fruit tree written by French botanist Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau.

Henri, the son of Alexandre Duhamel, Lord of Denainvilliers, was born in Paris in 1700. At one time, The Academy of Sciences asked him to investigate a disease which was destroying saffron plants in Ghinais.

In 1750, Du Monceau presented the manuscript and illustrations for Traité des Arbres Fruitiers for printing. Crucially, the text was accompanied by beautiful artwork by Claude Aubriet and Magdeleine Basseporte.

A five volume set of the original book was sold at Pierre Bergé in Brussels in 2006 for an extraordinary $4.7m.

Shakespeare First Folio

It's probably no surprise to see arguably the greatest writer of all time on the list. Shakespeare was highly regarded during his lifetime, but did not leave a comprehensive collection of his plays.

Fortunately, some of his contemporaries, notably John Heminges and Henry Condell, made an effort to preserve his works, and the result was the 36 play First Folio: Comedies, Histories & Tragedies by William Shakespeare, published in 1623.

First Folio Shakespeare
Shakespeare's First Folio

Only 750 copies of the First Folio were ever made and few remain in private hands. One copy sold for an extraordinary $5.2m at Sotheby's in 2006.

The Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible was the first major book to be printed with a movable type printing press, printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455.

Johannes Gutenberg was a German goldsmith and is best known for being the inventor of the press named after him, a printing machine that used movable type. The Bible was the first book printed by Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany.

Regarded as one of the most beautiful presentations of the Good Book ever made, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible soldat Christie's for $5.4m to a Japanese buyer.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a collection of stories, written in both prose and verse in the late 14th century. The book tells of the assembling of a pilgrimage, and on the journey each character tells a story.

Chaucer intended there to be 100 stories, but he died after completing just 24. Considered a ground-breaking work in the English language, first editions of Chaucer's work are extremely rare.

In 1998, a first edition copy sold for £4,621,500 ($7.2m) at a Christie's auction to London book dealers, the Mags brothers.

Birds of America by John James Audubon

If you were surprised at the value of a book on fruit trees, this may be startling. Birds of America by John James Audubon is a comprehensive ornithological study featuring 435 hand-coloured engraved plates based on Audubon's original watercolours.

Featuring more than 400 engraved plates of rare birds, Audubon's four-part  Birds of America was vital in introducing hithero unknown species to readers all over the world.

Birds of America by John James Audubon
Birds of America by John James Audubon

Audubon originally sold his hand-painted plates as sets between 1827 and 1838. These were eventually brought together and bound in a folio, and sold at a New York auction in 2000. Birds of America's final price soared all the way up to $8.8m.

In December 2010, this was proved to be no fluke as an auction at Sotheby's in London saw Birds of America confirm its position as the world's most expensive illustrated book when it sold for £7.3m ($11.5m).


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Images: Sotheby's

Last updated: 5 January 2011