Report: “In Search of the World’s Most Valuable Books, Letters and Laws”
In November 2021, a rare first printing of the Constitution of the United States sold at auction for $43.2 million (£32.9 million), setting a record for the most expensive printed text item ever sold. The buyer was a hedge fund manager called Kenneth Griffin, who promises to loan the document to a museum in Arkansas, for public display. “The US Constitution is a sacred document that enshrines the rights of every American and all those who aspire to be,” he said after outbidding a consortium of 17,000 cryptocurrency enthusiasts. This document, on which United States law is based, is one of only 13 known first editions to exist, and one of only two under private ownership.
As this sale suggests, many of the world’s most expensive printed items are political documents, rare letters or religious manuscripts. In 2019, for example, two letters written by Chinese scholar Zhao Mengfu, dating from the 13th or 14th centuries, sold for $38.2 million (£29 million). In 2017 the Mormon Church paid $35 million (£26 million) for an original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.
The First Folio (or Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, to use its correct name) is the earliest printed collection of the Bard’s plays. Containing 36 plays, the original print run was around 750 copies. However, during the intervening centuries, less than a third of these are known to have survived, most now stored in libraries, museums or universities in Britain and the United States. The book very rarely comes up for sale, which may explain its eye-watering price.
Other expensive literary works include a first edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales which sold for $7.57 million (£4.5 million) in 1998, and the original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom which took $7 million (£4.2 million) in 2014.
About Gary Price
Gary Price (email@example.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com. Gary is also the co-founder of infoDJ an innovation research consultancy supporting corporate product and business model teams with just-in-time fact and insight finding.