15 Rare Books Worth a Fortune
First editions of well-loved books can become the most prized in literature. If you have one of these rare books sitting on a shelf somewhere, get ready to cash in!
First Folio by William Shakespeare (worth $5.2 million)
Originally titled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the First Folio is a collection of 23 plays by William Shakespeare, including The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, and Romeo and Juliet. It was first printed in 1623, seven years after the iconic playwright’s death, and is considered the reason why his work lives on to this day. Without it, Shakespeare’s plays might have been lost forever. In 2006, First Folio sold at auction for $5.2 million (about $6.3 million today) at Sotheby’s in New York. If any of these items are sitting in your attic, you could make a lot of money.
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway (worth $321,600)
In 1924, French publishers Three Mountains Press released In Our Time, a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway. Only 300 copies were printed during its initial run. However, due to a printing mistake, only 170 of those copies were released and sold. The frontispiece is a woodcut portrait of Hemingway, which bled through the next page during printing. The remaining 130 copies were given away to friends and family and as review copies. Hemingway famously wrote, “In order to write about life you must first live it.” Due to its very limited numbers, In Our Time is considered one of the rare books for book collectors around the world. In April 2004, a first edition copy sold at auction for a whopping $321,600 at Sotheby’s New York.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (worth $55,000)
British publishers Bloomsbury released the first book in the Harry Potter series in June 1997. Believe it or not, only 500 copies were printed during its initial run, with 300 of those going to libraries and schools across the United Kingdom.
The first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the only book in the series that credits Joanne Rowling as its author (J.K. Rowling’s birth name before she took a pen name) and a print line number that reads, “10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.” The American edition released in 1998 removed the “Joanne Rowling” author credit and also changed its title to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Without the success of the first book, Rowling might have never released the other books in the Harry Potter series. First editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone can fetch about $40,000 to $55,000 at auction, depending on its condition—recently, a rare copy sold for nearly $100,000! Check out these cheap items to buy now that will be worth a fortune later.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (worth $180,159)
The first edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first released as three volumes, which sold for only 18 shillings (about $1.16 today) in 1813. Only 1,500 copies were printed and sold, perhaps as it was considered a fashionable, yet disposable novel when it was first released. Pride and Prejudice, however, went on to gain literary status throughout the 20th and 21st centuries with a number of film and TV adaptations.
In 2010, a first edition of the three volumes in pristine condition sold for £139,250 (about $179,870) at auction at Sotheby’s in London. The private collector also acquired a number of other literary rarities, such as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, among others, for more than £3.1million (about $4 million) in total. Other first editions of Pride and Prejudice, however, can be priced at $45,000, depending on condition.
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (worth $130,000)
Author Ian Fleming released Casino Royale, the first novel in what would be the James Bond book series in April 1953. The title’s initial run was a big success with British publishers Jonathan Cape printing more than 4,700 copies. Casino Royale sold out in a matter of a few months, as the demand for more adventures with James Bond grew in the United Kingdom.
Casino Royale became a rare first edition due to its dust jacket, which is nearly impossible to keep in near mint condition. A copy in good condition can fetch more than $40,000, while pristine copies can garner $130,000.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (worth $11.2 million)
In 1998, a first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales sold at auction at Christie’s in London. A billionaire philanthropist named Sir Paul Getty bought the English masterpiece sold for £4.6 million (about $11.2 million today). Earl Fitzwilliam of the County of Tyrone first acquired the copy that was auctioned off at a sale of John Radcliffe’s library at Christie’s in 1776. He originally paid £6 (about $7.75 today) for the first edition.
Book printer William Caxton made the first edition of The Canterbury Tales in 1477. There are only 12 rare books still in existence. These toys from your childhood could be worth a fortune now.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (worth $210,000)
Before J.R.R. Tolkien released his epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, he wrote a smaller fantasy novel for children called The Hobbit in 1937. It would be the precursor and blueprint for what would later become the trilogy—with its first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, released 17 years later in 1954.
The London publishers of The Hobbit, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., printed only 1,500 copies for its initial run. The children’s book quickly sold out three months after its release. However, newer editions would also be rare to come across at the time, due to a paper shortage caused by rationing during World War II. Since it’s so limited, a first edition copy in near-perfect condition runs about $65,000.
A first edition copy of The Hobbit sold for £137,000 (nearly $210,000) at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 2015. It was a copy with a special inscription that was once given to one of Tolkien’s former students.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (worth $194,000)
The first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with the original dust jacket is one of those rare books to track down. It wasn’t a best-seller when it was released in 1925 with only about 25,000 copies sold by the time of the author’s death in 1940. However, a first edition with the dust jacket can fetch upwards of $194,000. If you have a first edition, look for a typo on the back of the dust jacket: “jay Gatsby” with a lowercase “j.” This spelling error was corrected by hand with ink or a stamp.
Tamerlane and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe (worth $662,500)
Edgar Allan Poe, who died in 1849, once turned over a manuscript to a local printing press for self-publication. Only 50 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems were printed, with Poe choosing to publish his work anonymously as “A Bostonian” (although he was originally from Baltimore). While the 40-page pamphlet was mostly ignored, Poe’s work grew in popularity over the years.
In 2009, one of 12 copies known in existence sold at auction for $662,500 at Christie’s in New York City. In addition, Christie’s also auctioned off a poem Poe wrote to woo a married woman (that wasn’t his wife) for $830,500. Reading has surprising benefits you might not know about!
Ulysses by James Joyce (worth $355,000)
The first edition of James Joyce’s labyrinthine sophomore novel Ulysses sold at auction in 2009 for £275,000 (about $355,000 today), which was the highest price for a 20th-century novel recorded at the time. The book was well-preserved and was numbered 45 of the first 100 copies ever printed. It was also considered lost at one time, but it was originally purchased in a bookstore in New York City, despite it being banned for being obscene and salacious when first released in 1922. These are the most expensive books in the world.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (worth $56,124)
Before the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was released, its author Beatrix Potter commissioned a private publishing of the now iconic children’s book a year earlier in 1901. Only 250 copies were printed for friends and family, as one of these rare copies sold at auction for £43,400 (about $56,124) in 2016.
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger (worth between $40,000 to $75,000)
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye was the only novel penned by the famously reclusive author (although he wrote a number of short stories throughout his life). Much like The Great Gatsby, the first edition of The Catcher In The Rye is worth much more with its original dust jacket intact. Since it’s rare to have the book and dust jacket in near-mint condition, first editions of this American Classic can fetch between $40,000 to $75,000, depending on condition. These rare collectibles could be collecting dust in your garage right now.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (worth about $2 to $3 million)
First released in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the most sought-after first editions in literature. During its initial run, only 2,000 copies were printed but were immediately recalled at illustrator John Tenniel’s request. Tenniel was unhappy with how the print turned out, so he wanted a second printing in bookstores instead of the first. However, before the first print was recalled, Lewis Carroll gave away a few copies of the original to friends and family.
Today, there are only 22 known copies of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Sixteen are preserved at institutional libraries, while six are in the hands of private collectors. In 2016, an “excessively rare” copy was up for auction at Christie’s with an estimated price tag of $2 to $3 million. But if you can’t afford that hefty price, a more “affordable” second printing of the first edition can be yours for about $49,000.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
British publishing house Chapman & Hall released the first edition of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens in three volumes throughout 1861. While a complete set in pristine condition is hard to come by, a first edition set from its initial run sold at auction for $137,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.
Fun Fact: Great Expectations is so popular that the desk Charles Dickens wrote the novel sold at auction for $850,000 at Christie’s auction house in the same year.
The Gutenberg Bible (worth $5.39 million)
In 1987, one of the original Gutenberg Bibles was sold at auction in New York City. The book, the first printed by movable type, sold for a whopping $5.39 million (about $11.5 million today), a world record at the time for the highest amount paid for a single book. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles sold the Bible to one of Japan’s biggest booksellers to raise funds for the training of more clergy. These rare books may cost millions, but here’s how you can read books for free online.