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The Top 10 Printed Books

Gould’s Birds

$2,480,000 (£1,252,500)

Christie’s London, April 30

$1.2–$1.6 million (£600,000–£800,000)

The 40-Volume Birds

#1Next to John James Audubon, John Gould was perhaps the greatest ornithologist of the 19th century. He was a gardener’s son who learned taxidermy and was hired as a young man to work for the Zoological Society of London. When the society received a large collection of Himalayan bird specimens, Gould organized, identified, and sketched them. His wife, Elizabeth, made lithographs. The result was A Century of Birds from the Himalayas, published between 1831 and 1833. For the rest of his life, Gould published books of lithographs of bird specimens, documenting the astonishing variety of bird species around the world.

A noble family assembled this collection of Gould’s work, which filled 40 large volumes with several thousand beautiful lithographs. All of Gould’s major works were present and sold as a single lot for double the low estimate. PSB

Copernican Revolution


De revolutionibus orbis coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus

Christie’s New York, June 17


The first edition of the book that established that the earth went around the sun, and not the reverse.

#2If you want a contemporary equivalent for Nicolas Copernicus, think of Albert Einstein working as a clerk in a patent office while he developed his Theory of Relativity. Copernicus spent his life as a government functionary in Poland, far from western Europe’s centers of learning. He studied astronomy off and on when he had the chance and attracted a single student, Rheticus, who ensured that Copernicus’s treatise on astronomy, De revolutionibus orbis coelestium [On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres], made it into print. Copernicus received a copy of the printed book only weeks before he died. De revolutionibus said that the earth revolved around the sun, contradicting more than a thousand years of received wisdom in Europe and the teachings of the all-powerful Catholic Church, which put the book on its Index of Prohibited Books.

De revolutionibus is a dense, technical tract that has been described as the book nobody read. That’s an exaggeration. Among the early devotees of Copernicus were Tycho Brahe, the astronomer whose detailed measurements of the night sky proved Copernicus’s hypothesis; Johannes Kepler, who gave us the three laws of planetary motion; and Christopher Clavius, the astronomer behind our Gregorian calendar. Few books can claim to be more influential, and there is no nicer copy of this first edition. Perhaps that’s why this copy more than doubled the book’s previous auction record. PSB

Shakespeare First Folio


Published in London by Isaac Jaggard et al. in 1623

Christies London, June 4

Estimate: $575,000–$775,000 (£300,000–£400,000)

Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies by William Shakespeare

#3What’s a list of top books without a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, as the first edition of the Bard’s collected plays is called? Prices for copies of the most acclaimed book in English literature vary dramatically, depending on condition. This particular example is missing the title page, the well-known portrait of Shakespeare, and several other leaves at the beginning of the book. A previous owner replaced the missing bits with facsimile copies, but the damage chopped a few million off the price. PSB

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