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12 of the Rarest Books in the World

12 of the Rarest Books in the World

Join us as we journey through time to discover some of the rarest books in the world. The following texts have shown an extraordinary ability to survive, with some books having survived the ravages of flood and fire, and others counting only a single surviving copy.

12 of the Rarest Books in the World

Read on to explore the rarest texts in history. Our shelves boast an extensive collection of valuable antiquarian, and collectible books, each with its own unique history and charm.

Fire, Flood and Ruin

The Nowell Codex – Beowulf

The Nowell Codex – Beowulf
First page of Beowulf, Wikipedia Commons

In 1731, flames licked the shelves of the Cotton Library, and fire crept towards the pages of the Nowell Codex, which contained the single surviving copy of Beowulf, one of the most significant and beloved texts of Anglo Saxon literature.

Thankfully the manuscript survived and became as part of the Cotton Library became one of the three Foundation Collections of the British Museum. The work itself has become so significant now that the Old English canon is almost unimaginable without it. Currently held by the British Library, the text tells the story of Beowulf of the Geats, including his dramatic defeat of the monster Grendel and his mother, and his battle with a dragon.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Sangorski and Sutcliffe

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Sangorski and Sutcliffe
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, Wikipedia Commons

One of the most luxurious books ever produced was swallowed up by the waves when it sank with the Titanic. Years later, a second copy of the book was destroyed during the London Blitz in World War II. With a history so dramatic it is almost unbelievable that Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s legendary edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám survives at all, however a third (the only surviving copy of the book) is now held at the British Library. An astonishingly opulent and valuable book, the original text was bound with 1050 jewels, approximately 9 square meters of gold leaf and 5000 pieces of leather.

ON OUR SHELVES: Guillaume PONCET DE LA GRAVE. Calligraphic manuscript. Paris, 1776.

Guillaume PONCET DE LA GRAVE. Calligraphic manuscript. Paris, 1776

Discover a unique antiquarian manuscript, a valuable and collectible book with remarkable provenance, from the libraries of both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Having survived the French Revolution, it is now available on our shelves.

Wages of Sin

Codex Tchacos - The Gospel of Judas

Part of the Codex Tchacos, Wikipedia Commons

Unearthed in the Egyptian desert, The Gospel of Judas remained lost to time for over 1700 years. Part of the Codex Tchacos, an early Christian manuscript written in Coptic, The Gospel remains the first and only version of the text to have been discovered. Including an account of Jesus’ crucifixion, the manuscript reinterprets the story of the disciple Judas Iscariot, and in this version, it is Christ himself who instructs his friend to betray him. The manuscript is believed to be a copy of the original Gospel of Judas, now lost, which was written in Greek in the previous century.

ON OUR SHELVES: John MILTON. Paradise Lost. A Poem in Ten Books. London, 1669.

Although the first edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost survives in multiple copies, it is a highly collectible book. This edition on our shelves is one of only 1200 copies, of which there seven states of the title page. This 1669 issue is enhanced by the fourteen pages of preliminary matter added in 1668. Recounting the story of Satan’s journey from Hell, across Chaos to the Garden of Eden, the famous text has historically courted controversy. Although the reading itself has been disputed, the work would prompt the infamous statement by William Blake that Milton was ‘of the Devil's party without knowing it’.

Science and Cyphers

The Voynich manuscript

Voynich manuscript, Wikipedia Commons
Voynich manuscript, Wikipedia Commons

Although some books are slow to reveal their secrets, the Voynich manuscript is almost sphinx-like in its ability to guard the information contained within. Written in cypher in an unknown language, and shrouded with approximations and guesswork, the text today remains largely unintelligible. Although most probably a work of science or magic, with most of the pages featuring scientific and botanical illustrations, the exact meaning of the Voynich text continues to mystify experts. Overall, the authorship remains in question and the provenance vague, with scholars coming no closer to pinpointing the manuscript’s origin than estimating that it was written somewhere in central Europe within a period of roughly 200 years.

The da Vinci Codices.

The da Vinci Codices
Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci, Wikimedia Commons

Fine and inscrutable, the handwriting of Leonardo da Vinci slants across the page. Difficult to decipher, the notes left by the artist were written entirely in mirror writing. Possibly a result of the artist’s left handedness, a popular theory also suggests that da Vinci may have been trying to conceal his work from prying eyes. In the present day, the manuscripts, which include, amongst others, the Codex Forster, the Codex Atlanticus and the Codex Arundel, remain highly sought after. In 1994, da Vinci’s Leicester Codex made history as the most expensive manuscript ever sold at the time, when it was purchased by Bill Gates for $30.8 million.

ON OUR SHELVES: Luca PACIOLI. Summa de arithmetica. Toscolano, 1523.

Luca PACIOLI. Summa de arithmetica. Toscolano, 1523
Luca PACIOLI. Summa de arithmetica. Toscolano, 1523.

Explore a rare second edition of one of the most famous mathematical texts in existence, containing the first ever printing of work by 13th-century mathematician Fibonacci. Highly influential, the book earned its author the title of ‘Father of Accounting’. The book was also instrumental to the work of Leonardo Da Vinci, who was not only a student of Pacioli but was known to have owned a copy of the Summa and referred to it in his writing.

Birds and Rare Beasts

Birds of America by John James Audubon.

Birds of America by John James Audubon
Birds of America by John James Audubon

There are only 120 complete copies of Birds of America - a very small number for a printed book (by contrast there are 235 known copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio). This, along with its life-sized illustrations and desirability, has made it an extraordinarily scarce and valuable text. Completed over almost twelve years by John James Audubon, the plates count amongst some of the most striking and beautiful in natural history.

Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder

Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder
First page of Historia Naturalis, Wikipedia Commons

Produced a mere three decades after the invention of the printing press, the first edition of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis is astonishingly rare, being one of only 100 copies. Known for its 27,000 entries, which range from the remarkable to the outlandish, Pliny’s text is not only one of the rarest printed texts in existence but also one of the most intriguing. Traversing its pages, you will find birds, beasts and monsters, including men with eyes on their shoulders, dragons and phoenixes.

ON OUR SHELVES: Joachim Johann Nepomuk Anton, SPALOWSKY. Beytrag zur Naturgeschichte der Vogel. Vienna, 1790-1795.

Joachim Johann Nepomuk Anton, SPALOWSKY. Beytrag zur Naturgeschichte der Vogel Vienna, 1790-1795
Joachim Johann Nepomuk Anton, SPALOWSKY. Beytrag zur Naturgeschichte der Vogel Vienna, 1790-1795

The finest of only three existing complete copies, Beytrag zur Naturgeschichte der Vogel is a stunning work of natural history, with this edition containing several watercolours and framings that are most likely unique. Featuring splendid, engraved plates that have the additional distinction of being elaborately illuminated, the work was most likely specially produced for its owner Moritz Von Friest, then the richest man in the Habsburg empire.

If you’ve enjoyed our journey through some of the rarest texts in the world, explore our extensive collection of antiquarian, valuable, and collectible books, each with its own unique history and charm, in our online shop. To learn more about rare book collecting, check out our beginner’s guide, a comprehensive read for budding book collectors.

More Rare Book Collecting Guides

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Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

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