Books and manuscripts: 2017 auction review

We witnessed some fascinating results in the rare books and manuscripts sector this year.

From religious founding texts to everyone’s favourite boy wizard, buyers were not holding back.

Top book and manuscript sale of 2017


The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830 

In September, the printer’s copy of the Book of Mormon (the original, not the musical) realised an extraordinary $35m in a private sale.

It was sold from one branch of the Mormon church (known as the Community of Christ) to another (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

The book was originally published in 1830.

The author was a man named Joseph Smith, who supposedly dictated the text from a series of mysterious golden tablets.

Not only was the result the biggest of the year, it was the biggest ever in the book and manuscripts sector – outpacing the $30.4m paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester in 1994.

2017’s most important book and manuscript sales

Harry Potter first

Pottermania seems to be increasing as the years go on

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone cemented its status as the most in-demand first edition of the late 20th century. The record was broken several times over a period of months, culminating in a £106,250 ($140,146) result for a signed copy in November.

Few children’s books have maintained such an enthusiastic response over the decades as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. One buyer (presumably a former child) paid £70,000 ($88,000) for a copy at Mallam’s in February.

The wired, stream of consciousness prose of Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson letter” inspired Jack Kerouac to write On the Road. This year it also inspired one bidder to part with $206,250.

Books annotated by their authors are as rare as you’d expect. In March, Oscar Wilde’s revised copy of his acclaimed novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray realised $185,000.

Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to his financial backer Queen Isabella on his return from the new world in 1492. It became an immediate publishing sensation. This second edition, from 1493, captures the excitement of that moment. It made $751,500 in October.

The most unusual book and manuscript sale of 2017

Salem witch trials

The people of Salem might have been suffering from ergot poisoning during the trials 

We’re suckers for anything weird and wonderful, but this testimony from the Salem witch trials really had it all.

It’s given by a woman named Mary Daniels, who accuses a woman named Margaret Scott of witchcraft.

Daniels explains: "I was taken very ill again all over & felt a great pricking in ye soles of my feet, and after a while I saw apparently the shape of Margret Scott, who, as I was sitting in a chair by ye fire pulled me with ye chair, down backward to ye ground, and tormented and pinched me very much...”


Don’t have nightmares.

It was a breakout year for…


Babar artwork has benefited from the growing demand for Tintin

The art of so-called Franco-Belgian comics (of which Tintin and Asterix & Obelix are the best known examples) has been increasingly popular at auction. 

As prices for the top tier have gone up, we’ve tracked growing values for the second tier. This has been particularly visible with Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar series.  

In March, the cover to Le Rois Babar sold for $40,000 – a 33.3% increase on a valuation of $30,000. Those figures are likely to continue growing into the new year.

It was a year to forget for…

Alcoholics Anonymous text

Alcoholics Anonymous sued to get its Big Book back

The original text to Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book, one of the most widely circulated texts on the planet, was withdrawn from an auction in May.

It turned out AA was not happy about the book coming to auction, as it had been left to the organisation in a will.  

One you may have missed

Lovecraft Shunned House

Lovecraft became one of the world's most celebrated horror writers after his death

HP Lovecraft is one of those unfortunate creators whose work became absurdly popular after they died.

In October a copy of his debut novel, The Shunned House, sold for $9,000, almost double its $5,000 estimate.

This book was originally printed in 1928, but for a variety of reasons was only bound and published in 1937 after Lovecraft’s death.

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