24 Rarest Books Unlikely To Be Found In A Yard Sale
The rarest books in the world are also some of the oldest. Hence, it shouldn’t be surprising that the rarest books also contain the oldest pieces of information known to mankind. And as is often the case with art, music, or film, original works of literature are almost always more valuable. And that value grows substantially with each copy that gets lost due to the passage of time.
Original texts and printed first editions, especially the older ones, are very limited. And although many old books and their original copies got lost to history, usually, there were very few of them to begin with. Without human intervention, it’s doubtful that rare books or first editions of the oldest books, often written by famous authors or the most influential people of the time, would still be preserved today. And luckily, quite a few (although not too many) rare and antiquarian books have been located and taken care of, making them especially valuable for private book collectors, historians, and national libraries. Since most original sources have been lost or destroyed, first editions are often the most desired collectible books. However, those are often nonetheless harder to acquire than the original texts.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of rare books, which are simultaneously some of the oldest books in the world and have survived to this day. Original texts, one-of-a-kind books, handmade copies, and special and first editions make up the list of the rarest books still in existence. Were you surprised by any of the entries? Let us know in the comments. And if you’ve enjoyed this article, we invite you to share it with friends who might find it interesting too!
Before he published his famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien authored a short fantasy book for kids called The Hobbit. Only 1,500 copies of The Hobbit were printed for its first print run by London-based publishers George Allen & Unwin Ltd. The kids' book was sold out three months after its release. However, due to a paper shortage brought on by rationing during World War II, more recent copies were also hard to come by at the time. The signed copies of this edition have been valued at over $100,000 US. The cover above is a replica of the first edition of The Hobbit.
The Codex Gigas
The largest illustrated medieval manuscript in preservation is named the Codex Gigas. Romanesque monastery book production was often characterized by large illuminated Bibles. However, the Codex Gigas’s page size is considered remarkable even within this group. The large picture of the Devil on one of the manuscript’s pages gave it the moniker “the Devil’s Bible.” According to attempts to replicate the work, the calligraphy alone would have required twenty years of non-stop writing. The Codex Gigas was made entirely of vellum, the skin of donkeys. The manuscript is currently housed in the National Library of Sweden.
The Tales Of Beedle The Bard
In the last Harry Potter novel, Albus Dumbledore gives Hermione the first edition of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a collection of Wizarding children's fairy tales that eventually lead the trio to discover the Deathly Hallows. The fictitious book was so successful that J.K. Rowling created illustrations for it and made 7 handwritten copies decorated with leather and silver gems. Six copies were given to the people who supported her in creating the Harry Potter series, and the final copy was auctioned to raise money for The Children's Voice charity.
The Birds Of America
In 1820, the renowned naturalist James Audubon sought to illustrate every bird in North America, and the result was now one of the most valuable and rarest books, The Birds of America. After printing Audubon's original watercolor sketches in black ink, a group of colorists then hand-painted each print with watercolor paints. Out of an estimated 200, around 120 complete copies of The Birds of America are known to still exist today.
The Codex Of Leicester
The Codex of Leicester is a collection of scientific observations made by Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest minds in history. The 72-page book compiles his ideas for futuristic innovations, thoughts about medicine, and other things. There are no additional copies available since the notebook is one of a kind. It became the most expensive book ever sold when Bill Gates bought it in 1994 for over $30 million.
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
Today, there are only 22 surviving copies of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll and published in 1865. Only six of these are in the hands of individuals, while the others are stored in prestigious libraries. The book was initially supposed to have two thousand copies, but the print was recalled due to “print quality.” A new edition was created because John Tenniel, one of the most recognizable Victorian illustrators, wanted a better copy of his artwork.
Shakespeare’s First Folio
Over 400 years after William Shakespeare's demise in 1616, his works continue to have a significant influence on Western literature. In 1623, seven years after his passing, 36 of the Bard's plays were compiled and published in the First Folio. It was put together by his friends and associates who helped manage his theatre company. About 750 First Folios are thought to have been produced, and only 233 are known to survive today. Five are preserved at the British Library.
Pride And Prejudice
Jane Austen's best-known novel was published in 1813 in three separate volumes in a small batch of about 1500 copies. Like many famous works, it did not receive glowing reviews right away. When it was first published, academics thought it to be somewhat frivolous. Despite being dismissed as inconsequential at the time of publication, Austen is now regarded as one of the most famous female authors of all time. Of all books currently in existence, these first editions are among the rarest. The illustration on the right is a digital copy of one of the first published illustrations of Pride and Prejudice and depicts a scene from Chapter 59.
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales' enduring appeal prompted William Caxton, England's first printer, to pick it as the subject of his first major printed work in 1476. It's generally regarded as the first major book printed in Britain. In 1998, the first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales sold at auction for £4.6 million, roughly comparable to $10 million today in purchasing power. Although the exact number of copies printed is unclear, around 600 is a likely estimate. Only 10 copies of this edition are known to exist, two of which are owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library and one by the British Library.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published the first Don Quixote de La Mancha novel in 1605. A "once-in-a-lifetime" copy of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was for a while owned by a Bolivian diplomat Jorge Ortiz Linares who purchased it in London in the 1930s. In 2022, the rare edition was sold at auction in Paris for €504,000.
The Tale Of Peter Rabbit
A century before Harry Potter became a household name, another Potter made waves in children's literature. In 1901, Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a children's book which warns naughty children against misbehaving. There were only 250 copies of the initial first edition, which was done in black and white. Soon after, 1902 saw the release of a second edition in a run of 200 copies. The whereabouts of every copy and how many of them have survived are unknown.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was first published in three volumes by the British publishing house Chapman & Hall in 1861. While it's incredibly hard to find a complete set in mint condition, in 2008, a first edition collection was sold at auction for $137,500 at Sotheby's. Interestingly, the work was so well-loved that the mahogany desk where Charles Dickens penned Great Expectations and several other late novels and short stories was also auctioned off for a hefty $850,000 at Christie's in the same year. The illustration above is from a later edition of Robson & Kerslake, 1885.
Venus And Adonis
Shakespeare was best known as the author of Venus and Adonis during his lifetime. The erotic Ovidian poem was also Shakespeare’s first printed work. Published in 1593, Venus and Adonis only has one surviving first edition copy known to exist, which is currently preserved at the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford in the UK. The picture above is the title page of the first quarto from the 1593 book.
The Gutenberg Bible
The first book ever printed using a printing press was the Gutenberg Bible, published in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg himself and his associates. The book was initially printed in folio form or as loose pages that the owner would subsequently get bound to their taste, adding to its distinctiveness. It's known that just 48 copies have survived. Fewer than half of them are complete; others are just one volume or a few scattered pages.
Tamerlane And Other Poems
The first book written by Edgar Allan Poe was a small collection of poems. However, Poe published it anonymously. Allegedly, there were just 50 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems. The poems in Tamerlane and Other Poems deal with themes of love, death, and pride, much like most of Poe's later writing. It's believed that there are now only 12 left. The New York Public Library owns two of them. The image above is NOT the original cover.
On The Revolutions Of The Heavenly Spheres
On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres by Copernicus is another outstanding work of scientific advancement. The heliocentric universe, in which the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of our solar system, was realized in this book, first printed in 1543. To escape the consequences of being accused of heresy, Copernicus waited until he was lying on his deathbed to publish his findings. Around 260 copies of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres are believed to still exist today. The image above is a digital copy of a page from the original book.
In Our Time
In Our Time, a collection of short tales by Ernest Hemingway, was published in 1924 by the French publisher Three Mountains Press. It was first produced in only 300 copies. However, just 170 of those copies were published and sold due to a printing error. The remaining 130 copies were given to family and friends and used for reviews. The image on the right is a digital copy of the book's cover.
Geographia Cosmographia, which Claudius Ptolemy first penned in Greek in Alexandria in about 150 AD, is regarded as the summation of the Greco-Roman world’s geographic knowledge. Nevertheless, it was mostly neglected in the West during the Middle Ages. Byzantine humanist Manuel Crisoloras, who introduced the work to Italy, is to be credited for bringing it back into prominence. In 1406, his pupil named Jacopo di Angelo da Scarperia translated the original Greek text into Latin. The image above is a page from the Latin translation of the book.
Ulysses by Irish writer James Joyce, hailed by some as a modernist masterpiece, is one of those books that people frequently never quite get around to finishing or, in many instances, starting. In 1922, the year of Joyce's forty-first birthday, Sylvia Beach published the complete book for the first time in Paris. For the first printing of Ulysses, Beach commissioned 1,000 numbered copies, including 100 signed copies on Dutch handmade paper, 150 numbered copies on vergé d'Arches paper, and 750 copies on handmade paper. In 2009, the first edition, printed on fine Dutch handmade paper, sold for £275,000. At the time, it was the highest price paid for a first edition published in the 20th century.
Bay Psalm Book
After the original Hebrew version was translated into English, in 1640, the Bay Psalm Book was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, making it the first book to be printed in North America. As its name aptly implies, it’s a religious book that colonists in the Massachusetts Bay settlement used in their church. Just 11 copies of the Bay Psalm Book are known to exist today, only 5 of which are complete.
The Catcher In The Rye
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger was first released in 1951. Akin to The Great Gatsby, the first edition of The Catcher in the Rye is far more valuable with its original dust jacket, designed by Michael Mitchell, unharmed. At an auction in 2010, a first edition signed copy sold for $65,000. This was assumed to be a low asking price because of the book's poor condition and the false hope that a deluge of autographed copies would be available after Salinger's passing in January of that year. The picture above is the first paperback edition from 1953.
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone
First editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in hardcover have been dubbed the "Holy Grail" amongst Potter collectors. Of 500 copies that were initially printed, 300 have been sent to British libraries and schools. The other 200 copies were used as media review copies. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone's first edition is the only book in the series that lists Joanne Rowling (J.K. Rowling's birth name before she adopted a pen name) as its author and has the print line number "10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1." The image above is a cover of the later 2014 Bloomsbury Edition.
The Great Gatsby
One of those hard-to-find books is the first edition of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. However, it wasn’t an instantaneous hit when it was first published in 1925. In the span of 15 years, before the author passed away in 1940, only about 25,000 copies had been sold. However, a first edition with the original dust cover has already changed hands for between $100,000 and $150,000. Not bad, given that the 1925 price of the same book was only $2. The picture on the right side above is a digitally altered image of the first edition cover of The Great Gatsby.
In April 1953, author Ian Fleming released his magnum opus Casino Royale, the first book in what would become the James Bond book series. British publishers Jonathan Cape printed more than 4,700 copies of the book during its initial print run. It was quickly sold out because of the rising interest in further James Bond adventures. Casino Royale's first edition became a rare find because of its dust jacket, which is nearly impossible to maintain in mint condition. The image above is a digital cover of a later 2012 edition from Vintage Classics. The original first edition can be viewed here.