Our Top Ten most valuable signed classic first edition books

For many collectors it is the ultimate dream: a copy of a great book in its very earliest version, perhaps from before a time when it was clear whether anyone would read it, touched by the author's pen once more to deliver their signature and perhaps an inscription.

Here are ten of the most valuable signed first editions in existence:

The Beautiful and Damned

Some of the best inscriptions are those which give a quick view into the personality of the writer. One of our personal favourites is a first edition of The Beautiful and Damned inscribed by author F Scott Fitzgerald "To William Judd. Parisien / Critic / Playrite / Bibliophile / Drunkard / and / Good Egg".

F Scott Fitzgerald

The work with this cheery note sold for $19,520 (double its estimate) at Bonhams last year.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Unless you've been living in another dimension, the character of Harry Potter will not need an introduction, and J K Rowling's first work has become distinctly expensive in its first edition.

One of the most valuable examples was sold at Heritage in February 2010, and dates from J K Rowling's first interview with a major newspaper: Britain's Daily Telegraph. The interviewer was Elisabeth Dunn who was chain-smoking Gauloises cigarettes at the time, and Rowling, who had recently quit the habit, couldn't resist leaning into the smoke.

This is reflected in the cheery inscription: "Breathe some more / smoke my way! / J. K. Rowling." written in clear black ink. The copy sold for $23,900.


Swann Auction Galleries sold a pristine first edition copy of Ian Fleming's first James Bond book, Casino Royale, complete with dust jacket for $33,600 this April. However, the coveted text was overshadowed by a first edition of his later work, Moonraker.

James Bond Moonraker first edition
First edition of Ian Fleming's Moonraker
(Click to see inscription)

The reason? The work was inscribed to an enthusiastic early follower of Fleming's works: "To Eileen M. Cond/Who cannot be/easily shocked!/ from Ian Fleming - 1955." The classic spy thriller brought $50,400 - double its estimate.

Absalom, Absalom!

A rare collection of signed William Faulkner books and memorabilia went under the hammer just this summer in New York, achieving a total of $833,246. Over a tenth of that was for Absalom, Absalom!, a story about Southern poverty which is told entirely in flashbacks.

The final price of $86,500 was well over the $40,000 to $60,000 estimate, and due to the inscription made by Faulkner to his fellow writer and journalist Malcolm Cowley. It was only the third signed copy to be sold in three decades.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Beatrix Potter is remembered best for her children's books depicting the adventures of rabbits, foxes and hedgehogs, (though she was also a well-regarde scientist) and none more so than the classic The Tale of Peter Rabbit - a wayward bunny in a blue jacket.

At the end of last year, two first editions in classic green binding sold at Profiles in History's auction. One brought $14,160 and the other a startling $94,400. The difference between the two? A doting inscription:

"To 'Princess' Eileen on Peace Day Brougham Aug 23, 1919 From the authoress - with love from Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter", and on the opposite page she notes, "This volume is one of two, which were specially bound. The other copy was presented 15 years ago to a little Prince sometime known as 'David'".

Down and Out in Paris and London

Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell, became one of the 20th century's most highly regarded writers due to satirical novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

His first novel Down and Out in Paris and London also brought positive critical reviews, and a copy of the work sold for a stunning £101,500 ($158,000)at Gorringes auction house in March of this year. Given a coy estimate of £2,500-3,500, the first edition was in excellent condition and was the first in 27 years to go under the hammer wearing a dust jacket.

What made it unique, however, was the inscription: a grateful note to his agent Leonard Moore: "With the author's kind regards, to Mr LP Moore without whose kind assistance this book would never have been published. Eric Blair, 24.12.32."

Nicholas Nickleby

One of Charles Dickens's most famous works is The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby - which has in turn been referred to by many other writers, notably Roald Dahl.

In December 2009, a first edition of the work broke past the limits of its estimate ($70,000-100,000) to be taken home by the winner of a furious bidding war for $158,500. The simple inscription, "Sir David Wilkie From his faithfully Charles Dickens" [sic] is more significant that is immediately obvious.

Scottish genre and portrait painter David Wilkie was one of Dickens's very closest friends, and the author paid tribute to him on his death:  "[He]surrounded the lives, and cares, and daily toils, and occupations of the poor, with dignity and beauty."


James Joyce's landmark modernist work Ulysses is now regarded as a masterpiece, but when it was first offered to publishers there was a great deal of reluctance. The work is difficult to understand - that was Joyce's intention - thought to be obscene and like nothing which had gone before it.

The book was first published in Paris on February 2, 1922, on the author's 40th birthday. Only 1,000 copies were initially printed by the then obscure Shakespeare and Company.

Two only were signed by Joyce. One of these became part of John Quinn's collection before it passed to a museum, whilst the other was sold at Christie's in 2002. Its inscription "To Henry Kaeser James Joyce Dijon 12 October 1922" is to the publisher who provided the second printing of the work, on the day that went into production. The copy sold for a staggering $460,000, trouncing its $200,000-300,000 listing.


Jane Austen referred to the title character of Emma as a heroine who 'no one but myself will much like'. Another character whom she presumably liked in the book was Mrs Weston, as she was based on Austen's close friend Anne Sharp.

In 2008, a first edition presentation copy of Emma signed and presented to Sharp sold at Jonkers Rare Books in Henley-on-Thames. An almost unique example of a book owned by one of its characters, it sold for a grand total of £325,000 (around $510,000).

A Study in Scarlet

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is remembered mostly for his Sherlock Holmes novels. He actually wrote many different works including plays, poetry and historical novels, but the difficult, brilliant detective so enthralled his readers that it eclipsed everything else.

The author noted that old men would sometimes tell him that they had spent their childhoods reading about Holmes, and were shocked to hear that the works hadn't been published when they were children at all.

A Study in Scarlet

The first Holmes story was published in limited numbers and only 31 copies of the original A Study in Scarlet are known to still exist. Of these, just two are signed - though extraordinarily one is available right now. The inscription notes simply 'this is the very first independent book of mine which ever was published - Arthur Conan Doyle'.

Previously valued by Sotheby's at £500,000 ($784,000) and on offer at £395,000 ($619,000) it is desired the world over and may be the most coveted signed first edition on the planet.


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