Books have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years if you include scrolls and wax or clay tablets.
Books have been written on papyrus reeds, the skins of animals, and some have even been made using human skin, a practice called anthropodermic bibliopegy. Just reading about those books made my skin crawl! Apparently the most macabre books on death or dying in the 18th and 19th centuries were seen to add an extra level of esoteric interest if purported to be bound in human skin. Thankfully, most of those alleged bindings have been proven to have been made from sheep, cows, or goat skin.
The physically bound book continues to still have a great value to many. Especially those books seen as rare and unique either for the level of artistry or the history of the author themselves. Shakespeare and John Audubon both have created books that continue to sell for millions of dollars because of the content, rarity, and illustrations. Consider the following rare books and their current value or the perception of value that have for audiences today:
The Egyptian book of the dead is often represented in movies as a book for magic or causing death. In actuality, the book of the dead explains the Egyptian beliefs on the afterlife and what it takes for a person’s “ka” or soul to be weighed the same as a feather (i.e., balanced truth and justice in that person’s heart) by Anubis, in order to get to the Egyptian version of a heavenly afterlife. Those souls that weighed too much or too little were rejected and given over to Ammit, the devourer of souls. While movie versions of the book of the dead show a large black wooden book with beautiful clasps, the real book of the dead was either written on papyrus rolls or sections of it were painted on the walls and tombs of the funerary chambers of the Egyptian kings.
The world’s first printed atlas from the second century, the Geographia Cosmographia by Claudius Ptolemy was drawn on scrolls. It was republished in 1477, and a copy of that edition sold for nearly $4 million in 2006. The known world of the time was mainly the Mediterranean. Ptolemy believed the sun revolved around the earth since the earth was the center of the (then) known universe.
Only 48 Gutenberg bibles still exist in the world and one sold for $4.9 million in 1987. They were the first books to be printed with movable type in 1455 and are considered one of the rarest books in the world. The printing of the Gutenberg bibles was considered a technology revolution since this was the turning point for books being no longer written by hand. This allowed for mass production and the first easy distribution of information. Nowadays, in the digital world, we would call that “going viral” when multitudes of people are all accessing the same information at once. Imagine how it must have felt when for the first time hundreds of people could all hold and read the exact same information at the same time instead of waiting for individually commissioned copies that were hand lettered.
The Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci, is a one-of-a-kind hand drawn master artist journal that sold at auction for $30.8 million. It is the most famous of da Vinci’s scientific journals. Included in the book are theories on fossils, movement of water, and what made the moon glow. Bill Gates purchased the book at auction, had it digitally scanned, and used the scans as screen-savers for Microsoft Plus for Windows 95.
Originally 200 copies were printed of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Today, there are only 24 original United State of America Declaration of Independence copies left. Some of the printing was done in such a hurry that residual ink marks can be seen on some of the remaining originals. One copy of the Declaration of Independence was found in 1989 behind a painting that was purchased for $4 at a Pennsylvania flea market because the buyer liked the frame and not the dismal dark country scene. Approximate value? About $1 million.
Even newer books, such as those written by J.K. Rowling, to the right collector have special interest. J.K. Rowling handwrote and illustrated seven original copies of her book, “Tales of Beedle the Bard,” before she mass published the book. The only copy of the seven that she put out to auction (the rest were given to friends and her editors) sold to Amazon.com in 2007 for $3.98 million dollars.
All this just goes to show that people are fascinated by knowledge or history, and things that are perceived as rare or special will continue to gain value depending on the cultural significance. Some of these books and artifacts mentioned above will fade away with time. Others will always continue to transcend any trends and always be considered of great value or even priceless. History, art and the recording of the same, it seems that both will always be of great fascination to the human race.