I have worked in many libraries and as such I have organised the books in my house into the duodecimal system. I have four drawers of books. The first drawers holds books between A-G, the second H-P, the third P-Z and the fourth holds stationery. I’m very happy (and can I say proud?) of this system. The only downside is that when I can’t find a book I know that it is because I no longer have it.
The other week I searched my collection for a book about ghost stories in Kent. Although I’d read the book once, and if I’m honest I didn’t enjoy it that much, I’d seen on Facebook that first editions of this book were now worth several hundred pounds. I pulled open the drawer, searched through my books only to find the it missing. Then I dimly remembered putting it in the pile for the charity shop several years ago. D’oh!
This got me thinking. What are some of the most expensive books out there? Here are those answers.
1) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling.
Some would say that the name J K Rowling has become synonymous with wealth. Rowling’s rise to fame has been well documented, I’ve touched upon it several times on this website, so I won’t go into too much detail here. When Bloomsbury publishing agreed to print the first Harry Potter novel in June 1997 they asked for only five hundred copies to be made. Out of these five hundred copies three hundred were sent directly to schools and libraries. When the remaining two hundred copies were sold in bookshops, a second and later third print run was ordered and soon copies Harry Potter could be found around the world. I still have my copy that I brought in WH Smiths in 1997.
In 1998 American publishers took an interest in the franchise. They started selling the first Harry Potter novel under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The reason for this title change is that they feared young children wouldn’t know what a Philosopher was.
The American publishers also wanted a different cover. Strangely both are inaccurate in the Harry Potter lore. The British version (left) shows the Hogwarts Express beside a regular muggle train when in the book the express has a separate platform. The American version (right) shows Harry catching a snitch but the illustration does not display the Quidditch Pitch.
The first two hundred copies sold in the UK are now worth a small fortune and are special for three reasons. The first is that the author’s name is listed as Joanne Rowling and not J K Rowling on the publisher’s page. The reason behind this is that publisher’s believed that a female name would dissuade young male readers. The second feature of note in these first editions is that during chapter five, when Hagrid takes Harry to Diagon Alley, Harry’s shopping list reads “1 Wand” twice implying that Harry was going to purchase two separate wands. The third point is that these two hundred books have the print line number 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. The one at the end signifies that the book was part of the first print run. A book from the second print run would end at two, a third edition book would end at three and so on. Depending on the condition of the book, if it includes a dust jacket, if it is a standard edition and if it was printed in London, they can sell for up to $55,000.
However these two hundred books are not the most valuable Harry Potter books…
There are seven copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, each hand written by J K Rowling that have sold for millions. The Tales of Beedle the Bard are, in the Harry Potter universe, a collection of what we would call fairy tales. Harry, Ron and Hermione encounter a copy of the book in their final year at Hogwarts. Shortly after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published, it was followed by The Tales of Beedle the Bard. The seven hand written copies look like this:
One copy was sold for £1.95 million. The money went to J K Rowling’s charity Lumos.
There is however one more book that is even rarer than The Tales of Beedle the Bard. This book is one of a kind. It is J K Rowling’s own version of Harry Potter and the Philsopher’s Stone. It is complete with her own annotations (including the note Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone changed my life forever) and includes a forty three page account of her writing process.
2) Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s buried manuscript
You may not know the name Dante Gabriel Rossetti but you may be familiar with his work.
To summerise Rossetti was a poet, illustrator, painter and translator. Aside from his work he is well known for his relationships with several women who he considered to be his muses. Among these women was his future wife, Lizzie Siddal. Rossetti’s relationship with Siddal was turbulent. They had a series of engagements lasting ten years but Rossetti had many affairs before the pair eventually married in 1860. Once they were married Rossetti remained faithful until her death two years later of a laudanum overdose. At her funeral Rossetti placed two books in Siddal’s coffin. The first was Lizzie Siddal’s bible and the second was his own manuscript which contained poems about his deceased wife. Rossetti is said to have commented:
“I have often been writing at these poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go”
Although some friends tried to dissuade Rossetti from this sacrifice, he placed both books under his wife’s hair and watched as she was buried in High Gate Cemetery.
Eight years after her death, in the process of publishing another volume of poetry, Rossetti decided that he wanted his manuscript back. He asked his friend Howell to dig up his wife and receive his poems. Howell, with a team of doctors, dug up the coffin, opened the lid, replaced the manuscript of poems with a rock and reburied Siddal. He then wrote to Rossetti explaining that although the book was damp and damaged it was readable.
When Rossetti received the book several weeks later he was disgusted. The book was decaying, worm infested and reeked of disinfectant which had been applied by one of the doctors. Most of the poems inside the book were destroyed and when the newspapers reported the story, which had been leaked by one of the doctors, Rossetti’s reputation was ruined.
Although historical accounts do not mention what became of the manuscript there are rumours it survived until the year 2000 where it was sold to an anonymous bidder at an auction on the black market.
3) Shakespeare’s First Folio.
Shakespeare’s First Folio has been named as the most influential document in the history of England and arguably the world. The folio was published in the year 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death and contains thirty six of his plays. Although this was not the first time Shakespeare’s works had been published, the first folio contained eighteen plays that had not been seen in print before including: Macbeth, Henry VI part one, and All’s Well That End’s Well. It also contains The Droeshout Portrait, pictured below which is the only known picture of William Shakespeare. (It should be noted that the portrait was started after Shakespeare’s death by an artist who had never met him so it’s accuracy is in question).
The Folio was created by Henry Condell and John Heminge who worked with Shakespeare during his lifetime. They incorporated manuscripts from Shakespeare’s London and Stratford lodgings, actors’s sheets, working drafts and from their own memory. Once they had collected all of the contents they divided it into three categories comedies, tragedies and histories which shape how we view Shakespeare today. Interestingly there was also a section in the first folio called bad quartos which contain pirated editions of the works which alter from the original source.
Only seven hundred and fifty copies of the first folio were printed. Two hundred and thirty three copies survive with five being held in the British Library. We also know that the copies the British Library hold are first editions and not from a later print run. This is because Droeshout made improvements to Shakespeare’s portrait after the folio was published. These improvements include shading around the neck to dispel the illusion that Shakespeare’s head was floating and editing to the forehead and chin.
4) Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813 in three separate volumes. Although it was well received when it was first published it was treated as a trend that would soon die out. The novel was published anonymously but with the note: by the same author as Sense and Sensibility. Sense and Sensibility was published “By a Lady” which saved Jane Austen’s identity and also started her career as an author. It wasn’t until the 20st century that Jane Austen’s work became part of the public’s consciousness. The 2005 film Pride and Prejudice staring Keira Knightley was a smash hit but my personal favourite is Pride, Prejudice and Zombies from 2016.
When it was first published each volume sold for eighteen shillings (about eighty nine pence) but a first copy today, in pristine condition, sold at auction for £139,250. Interestingly the collector who brought this copy at auction also brought first editions of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The identity of this buyer is unknown but they sound like a fantastic character for a novel.
Sadly, Jane Austin would never learn how successful her books would come. She died of Addison’s disease on 18 July 1817.
5) Casino Royal (with dust jacket) by Ian Fleming.
The first James Bond novel, Casino Royal was published in 1953 but the idea of James Bond was born long before that. During the Second World War Ian Fleming worked as the personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence and as such met with and read the reports of British spies abroad. Fleming read the account of Duane Hudson who spent most of World War Two behind enemy lines, survived several assassination attempts and blew up a Nazi ship single handedly. Forest Yeo-Thomas parachuted multiple times into Nazi controlled France, had dinner with the Nazis, used a variety of disguises, was captured by and escaped the Gestapo. Perhaps most notably Dušan Popov, explained to Fleming how he had placed a $40,000 bet in a casino, forcing a rival to withdraw. This idea was later used in Bond’s first novel Casino Royal.
Although James Bond is more well known for his films than his books, it is interesting to see how many authors have had a hand in shaping Bond. Fleming only wrote the first fourteen James Bond novels. Kingsley Amis as Robert Markham published Colonel Sun in 1968 followed by John Gardner who wrote another sixteen novels. Raymond Benson wrote another twelve and one of my favourites authors, Anthony Horowitz has written the latest two, Trigger Mortis and Forever Plus A Day. The James Bond from the novels is drastically different to his cinematic counterpart.
Interestingly Casino Royal has been adapted to the big screen twice and is the most valuable book in the James Bond collection. It isn’t the book itself that makes it a collector’s item but rather its dust jacket. Whenever I receive a book with a dust jacket I normally take it off as I find them annoying to hold whilst reading but they are a piece of art in itself. If the dust jacket is in good condition and the colours have not faded then Casino Royal is almost priceless.
Thank you for reading. Do you know any rare books or have you ever owned a copy? Let me know and I’ll see you next time.