15 Most Expensive First Edition Books

first edition books
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Ebooks and digital reading have marked a revolution in the world of books, but they cannot beat the smell and feel of paper. Especially that of a collectible first edition, which can often go for thousands of dollars at auction.

What Is a First Edition?

First edition books are the first copies to be printed. In general, a first edition is often more expensive because it is older and rarer compared to other editions available.

Literature lovers and avid readers often seek out first editions of books they love because it is the original, and originals are always the best.

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Why Are First Editions More Valuable?

The first editions of a book are the most valuable because it’s the edition the author saw through production, and is the closest in time to when the author actually wrote the book. This means the book is most likely to represent, or reflect, the author’s intent with the story.

First editions of books also often have a lower print count, so there is not as many in the world. This is especially true with older books, as they took a long time to be printed, bound, and copied. This increases the value on its own, much less only having a couple dozen still in the world.

If you want to see some of these examples, make sure to keep reading below:

15. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, $56,124

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Published in 1902 by Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has been a classic for young readers for over a century now. The story follow mischievous and disobedient Peter Rabbit as he gets into and chased in the garden of Mr. McGregor. When he escapes and returns home to his mother, she put him to bed after offering him chamomile tea. It’s a great story that has been even turned into a movie in recent years.

In terms of the first edition of Peter Rabbit, these copies can go for around $50,000 at auction, marking it as our fifteenth most valuable first edition book.

14. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, $180,159

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One of the most beloved and debated stories in the classroom and beyond is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy are unforgettable characters and really embody something of a love story set in the 19th century.

Of course, this book will fetch a high price at auction and often comes in the three-book set that was called the Godmersham Park set, one of which belonged to Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. Nowadays, the asking price is easily over $100,000.

13. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, $210,000

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I fell in love with J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of The Hobbit when I read it in high school, and it still is one of the best fantasy novels created to this day. The rich world was published in 1937 to wide critical acclaim, and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction.

Though The Hobbit has not been out for a super long time in terms of books being published, the frist editions still garner a lot of attention — and money.

12. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway, $321,600

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In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway is partially so special due to the differences from the original printing of the book to the first American publication. The first published collection of Hemingway’s work, the book has several short stories about American life in the early 1920s, and was first published in Paris in 1924 under the title In Our Time.

The first edition was a set of 18 vignettes and had 32 pages in total. Only 300 copies were printed, but due to a printing mistake, only 170 copies were released for sale, increasing the value immediately after publication. You can tell it is one of these exclusive copies by seeing the statement of limitation that reads “of 170 copies printed rives handmade paper this is number __.”

11. Ulysses by James Joyce, $355,000

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Irish writer James Joyce is our next featured author, with his first edition of the novel Ulysses, a modernist novel that partially appeared in the American journal The Little Review before the entire work was published in Paris in 1922 on Joyce’s 40th birthday.

With only 1,000 total copies of the first edition, you can check each book for the number of the copy on the inside of the book.

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10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, $471,000

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Harry Potter is one of those books that everyone seems to know, whether they’ve actually read the series or just watched the movies. J.K. Rowling has created a timeless series, and this is one of the best-selling books of all time.

The first edition, first printing has “First published in Great Britain in 1997,” “Joanne Rowling” instead of “J.K. Rowling,” and other unique printing mistakes that make this first edition even more valuable. Only 500 copies of the first printing were published, and 300 of which were distributed directly to libraries.

9. Tamerlane & Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe, $662,500

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If you are an Edgar Allan Poe junkie like me, then you’ll love this next first edition we have on our list. Tamerlane and Other Poems is rare in terms of Poe’s writing, due mostly to the fact that no more than 50 copies were printed in 1827, and only 12 are thought to still exist today. Poe claimed to have written the work before he turned 14, later publishing it when he was 18 whether the author (Poe) was only identified as “a Bostonian.”

This first edition was recently sold at auction by Christie’s for $662,500, setting a new record for a work of American literature sold at auction.

8. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, $2-3 million

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Another largely popular book that has entertained for over a century is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Following Alice as she falls into Wonderland chasing a rabbit and meeting other anthropomorphic characters, there are a lot of oddities in Wonderland that instill the idea of the fantasy genre.

Macmillan first published the novel in 1865 with illustrations by John Tenniel, and the first print run was only 2,000 copies before it was recalled due to “print quality.” There are only around two dozen copies of the legendary “Sixty-five Alice” novels to survive today.

7. First Folio by William Shakespeare, $6.1 million

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It would be impossible to talk about the most expensive first edition books and not include the name of the greatest dramatist of English Literature, William Shakespeare.

In 2001, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft bought the First Folio for $6,166,000 in New York. 

6. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, $7.5 million

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The Canterbury Tales is the first-ever surviving work of English, making it a must-read for every literature historian.

The first edition of the book was sold in London for $7.5 million in 1998. It was originally published in 1477 and is considered to be the first-ever prose of the English Language by the father of English Literature, Geoffrey Chaucer.

5. Birds of America by James Audubon, $11.5 million

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The Birds of America is a book containing illustrations of a wide variety of birds found in the United States by naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

It is a portal into the natural world of the United States printed in series from 1827 to 1838.

This book has only 119 known copies in the world, one of which was auctioned in 2000 for $8,802,500. In 2011 another complete copy was sold for $11.5 million in London.

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4. The Gospel of Henry the Lion by Order of Saint Benedict, $11.7 million

Credit: Wikipedia

The Gospel of Henry the Lion is a Romanesque illuminated manuscript, and a masterpiece of the 12th century.

The 266-page Gospel includes 50 full-page illustrations. The gospel book was originally commissioned by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony to reside at the altar of the Virgin Mary at Brunswick Cathedral.

The German government purchased it in 1983 for $11.7 million, making it the second most expensive first edition in the world.

3. The St. Cuthbert Gospel, $14 million

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If you enjoy gospels from centuries ago, then this is the first edition book for you. Known as Europe’s oldest intact book, the St. Cuthbert Gospel is a copy of the Gospel of St. John, thought to have been produced in northeastern England sometime during the seventh century.

The book itself is decorated in a beautiful red leather cover, and is quite well-preserved. It was recently purchased by the British Library in London for around $14 million.

2. The Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci, $30.8 million

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The Codex Leicester is the most famous 14-page book by the Italian polymath of the High Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci is considered to be one of the most talented individuals ever to have lived on this planet and The Codex Leicester is one of his many masterpieces.

The first edition of this book is filled with handwritten musings and theories of da Vinci. Topics range from fossils to the movement of water, and speculations on how the moon glows.

The book currently resides with Bill Gates who purchased it at auction for $30,800,000.

1. The Book of Mormon, $35 million

Credit: Swann Auction Galleries

Published in 1830, The Book of Mormon is our most valuable first edition book on this curated list. This is Joseph Smith’s translation of the golden tablets revealed to him by the angel Moroni on the hill of Cumorah near Manchester, New York.

It was printed two weeks prior to the formal establishment of the Mormon Church, and is the only edition where Joseph Smith is identified as the “author” rather than as the “translator” which appears in later editions.

Books are one of my favorite things, and older first edition books are even more precious to not only book lovers, but to collectors as well. They hold a unique piece of history, and can show what the period experienced, without having to actually be there. If you enjoy reading or history, make sure to check out these first edition books, and see if you can get your hands on one of them.

Alexandria is a News Editor, writer, and reader of all things literature. She graduated from the State University of... More about Alexandria Wyckoff

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