The Rare Book Hub Top 500 Auction Prices for Books and Works on Paper for 2021 – It Was a Record Year

- by Michael Stillman


America's founding documents the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, were in the top 4 (Freeman's/Sotheby's photos)

Another year has come to a close, meaning it is time to look back at the Rare Book Hub Top 500 prices paid at auction in the books and paper field for 2021. This was a spectacular year, unlike any we have seen before. Prices were skyrocketing across the board, while ephemeral types of paper continued to see an astonishing growth in prices. At the very top, the most expensive item sold for over $43 million, the highest ever for something in the collectible paper field. More amazing was the increase at #500, as this is more indicative of the high end of the field than one single item at the top. Number 500 sold for $119,700. In 2020 #500 was $75,000. That is a year-to-year increase of 60%!


It will come as little surprise to those who follow the works-on-paper field that items other than traditional books now dominate the high end of the market. This is an evolution that has been ongoing for several years. None of the top 10 highest prices last year was for a printed book. Manuscripts and shorter forms of paper tend to bring the highest prices. We have also seen a head-scratching growth in the prices of two types of collectible paper – comic books and sports cards. Every year we debate whether they should be included. A decade ago they were an insignificant presence. Now they hold 40% of the listings. We retain them because they are collectible paper, and their inclusion helps to clarify what forms of paper are most collectible in these times.


This past year there were 78 listings of comics or original artwork created specifically for use in comics, such as storyboards and cover art. Even more surprising, there were 129 sports cards, mostly baseball cards but many for basketball, some for football, a few for hockey, and one for soccer. I don't know if you are ready for this but there were also 11 Pokemon cards, up from four the previous year. They sold for prices from $156,000 - $408,000. Your children hate you for throwing out their Pokemon cards like you did your parents for throwing out your baseball cards.


Here's where we should mention what sort of paper is included or excluded. We do not include original artwork unless it was created specifically to illustrate a book or its cover. We also exclude prints if they were created for artistic purposes rather than to convey information or are of historic value. If art prints were included they would totally dominate the list. Banksy would have made the list 59 times, Andy Warhol 49 times, Pablo Picasso nine. I've never been that fond of Warhol or Picasso but I do like the self-effacing Banksy, though not at these prices. On the other hand, prints by Currier and Ives are included.


Single pages from a book are tallied. These are usually plates from Audubon's double-elephant folio Birds of America. They are beautiful. A single page from the Gutenberg Bible also made the cut this year.


Some traditional writers and major leaders still make the list but not as much as they used to. Charles Darwin still has 7 appearances. Shakespeare has 4. George Washington is down to 3, Abraham Lincoln 2. Charles Dickens, a long-time favorite, is down to only one. At least it was good year for Einstein with 5. On the other hand, Mickey Mantle appears 17 times, Michael Jordan, 12, Babe Ruth 11. He isn't real, but Spider-Man is on the list 11 times. Even some ballplayers who, while outstanding, are not great celebrities make the list, including Al Kaline, Warren Spahn, Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Duke Snider, Rod Carew, Ricky Henderson, Scotty Pippin and George Mikan. Even a basketball card for Zion Williamson, who has not established greatness, has barely even played yet due to injuries, brought $348,000.


Are Mantle and Jordan more important than Washington and Lincoln, Spider-Man a greater literary giant than Shakespeare? Should I be bothered that their appearances kept a first edition of Sense and Sensibility, an autograph manuscript by Isaac Newton concerning issues in the Principia, a four-volume Blaeu atlas and a Shakespeare Second Folio out of the Top 500? Here is where we are treading on thin ice. The market has made its choice and those of us who disagree will be charged with elitism. Is there some standard for saying one is more important than the other or is it all a matter of taste? Good and bad, right or wrong, who determines? Something inside tells me Shakespeare is a better writer than whoever created Spider-Man, but what is that based on? Somebody help me here, or is this just elitism, PC, being “woke?”


Before we reach the Top 10, we will mention a few other interesting items, and after the Top 10 provide a link to the entire Top 500.


497. A broadside announces that Texas has seceded from the Union on February 1, 1861. $119,700.


483. Looking back, a retired George Washington writes, “To have steered my Bark amid the intricacies of variegated public employment, to a haven of rest with an approving conscience; and while receiving the approbation of my own country for the part I have acted, to meet similar proofs of it from many of the moderate & virtuous of other countries consummates my greatest wish and all my ambition and in my eye is more precious than any thing that Power or riches could have bestowed.” That sums up who Washington was in one sentence. $125,000.


428. Galileo's Dialogo that got him in so much trouble. $137,500.


403. Buzz Aldrin's lunar landing checklist. $143,740.


360. A sheet of paper with Mohandas Gandhi's signature and fingerprints. $150,152.


275. A musical manuscript by Mozart. $186,857.


173. $100,000 reward poster for John Wilkes Booth. You get a bigger reward for the poster. $275,000.


121. Rochambeau's copy of a manuscript map of Yorktown by French military engineer Desandrouins. $352,800.


92. Earliest obtainable printing of the Emancipation Proclamation. $403,200.


14. A group of 71 salt prints by photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot given to his sister. $1,956,000.


And here is the Top 10.


10. An autograph manuscript with Isaac Newton's revisions of his Principia for the second edition. $2,362,049.


9. A 1909 Sweet Caporal Honus Wagner baseball card, the most desirable of all cards (#11 is another 1909 Honus Wagner). $2,520,000


8. Dune. Materials gathered for the film adaptation of this science fiction classic that never came to be. $3,000,946.


7. Amazing Fantasy #15. Comic featuring the first appearance of Spider-Man. $3,600,000.


6. An illuminated manuscript Book of Hours in Latin and French, circa 1440s. $3,630,000.


5. Les Aventures de Tintin Reporter en Extrême-Orient, adventures of Tintin in the Far East. Hergé's (Georges Remi) comic character is known to bring astronomical prices. $3,862,074.


4. Signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton's copy of the Declaration of Independence. This is the 1824 William Stone facsimile. Carroll was the last survivor of the signers, living until 1832. $4,420,000.


3. The Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor. This is a circa 1300 illuminated manuscript Ashkenazic Hebrew prayer book for the Jewish High Holidays. $8,307,000.


2. The autograph Einstein-Besso Manuscript discussing the general theory of relativity, 54 pages written by Albert Einstein and Michele Besso in 1913-1914. $13,184,172.


1. The first printing of the United States Constitution from 1787. One of only 12 known copies. It was purchased by multi-billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin. $43,173,000.


This is your link to the complete Rare Book Hub Top 500.