The 8 Most Expensive Historical Items To Have Sold At Auction

As you’ve probably realized many moons ago, the rich aren’t like us.  It’s probably safe to bet that they’ve never had to rummage through their car seats for lunch money.  And if their kids start to piss them off, well, there’s an app for that – a boarding school application, that is.  The truly rich are also not shy about dropping obscenely large amounts of money on items at auction.  These eight historical artifacts, for instance, cost their new owners the kind of money that many of us don’t expect to see in a lifetime.

8. The Most Expensive Book

We like birds.  We also like books.  However, we still find it a little crazy that a first edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” sold in 2010 for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s in London.  Admittedly, the book is rare, only 200 copies were printed between 1827 and 1838, and it is huge, about three-and-a-half feet tall by four feet wide when open.  Yes, the pages are hand colored and this book is comprised of four volumes, but we still think that is a lot of money for a book.  So who spent all this moolah on what is now the most expensive printed book ever purchased at auction?   The winner was Michael Tollemache, who is a fine arts dealer in London.

7. Illustrated Folio from the Shahnameh

Well, at least Michael Tollemache got a whole book for his $11.5 million.  In 2011, an anonymous buyer paid $12.2 million for one illustrated page of a 16th-century Persian manuscript, the Shahnameh, which is also known as the Book of Kings.  The gorgeous folio, which was auctioned by Sotheby’s in London, was created in watercolors, ink and gold for the Shah Tahmasp of Persia.   The complete “Book of Kings” took over 20 years to complete, was illustrated by the country’s finest artists of that time, and told the story of the Persian national epic.  The $12.2 million single page is now the most expensive Islamic work of art to be sold at auction.

6. Emerald and Diamond Tiara

So if you’re going to blow a lot of money on something, it seems to us that spending it on a pretty little emerald and diamond tiara just kind of makes sense.  You know, you can wear it out to all of those swanky occasions and say pretentious things like, “This old thing?  I just picked it up for a mere $12.76 million.  Do you think it matches these Laboutins?”

Of course, we don’t know if the actual buyer of the emerald and diamond tiara ever actually wears it out or even the name of the person who purchased this beauty from Sotheby’s Geneva location in May of 2011.  All we know is that the buyer placed the winning bid for what is now the world’s most expensive tiara through a telephone call to Sotheby’s North American location.

The dazzling tiara, which was created for Princess Katharina Henckel von Donnersmarck around 1900, may have been designed by famed jewelers Chaumet.  The stunner features 11 large, pear-shaped Colombian emeralds that may have once belonged to Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, as well as lots of sparkling diamonds.

5. Roman Statue of Artemis and The Stag


The super rich don’t have to go to museums and mingle with the commoners to enjoy rare Roman antiquities.  For a few million – or $28.6 million, to be exact – they can buy their own fabulous statues and display them in their mansions.

In June 2007, a private collector purchased Artemis and the Stag, a beautiful bronze piece, through Sotheby’s for a record setting $28.6 million, making it the most expensive Roman sculpture to ever sell at auction.  The 2000-year-old sculpture is deemed by many in the know as being of the quality you would typically only find in the Louvre or the British Museum.

4. The Codex Leicester


Sure, spending $30.8 million on a manuscript may seem a tad excessive.  But that amount of money probably didn’t even make a dent in the wallet of the guy who purchased the Codex Leicester in 1994.  You may have heard of him.  Bill Gates.  Of Microsoft fame.  Yeah, we’re pretty certain auction house, Christie’s of London, didn’t have to run a credit check on this guy when he purchased the Codex Leicester.

So what exactly is the Codex  Leicester? Besides now being the most expensive manuscript ever sold at auction, it is also a 76-page, 16th-century, scientific notebook that was written by Leonardo da Vinci.  The Codex Leicester is also very interesting because Leonardo used mirror writing, which meant he wrote from right to left and backwards, to jot down the entries in this manuscript.  Some people believe he may have done this to prevent others from reading or copying his ideas.

18th Century Bandminton Cabinet

>It’s probably because we’re unwashed heathens, but we can’t really think of a reason why we’d ever want to spend any money on a badminton cabinet, let alone $36 million.  But obviously Prince Hans-Adam II, Liechtenstein’s head of state, thought that he desperately needed this when he purchased it at a 2004 Christie’s London auction.

The Badminton Cabinet became the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold at auction, although experts consider it more a piece of art than a furnishing.   The ornate 18th century ebony chest, which is inlaid with beautiful stones, was created by the famed Grand Ducal workshops in Florence for Henry Somerset, the third duke of Beaufort.

2. The Guennol Lioness


This tiny $57 million artifact from Mesopotamia proves once again that size doesn’t matter.  Measuring only 3.25 inches tall, the Guennol Lioness is a limestone figure that is believed to have been carved over 5,000 years ago and is the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction.

The pint-sized lioness sold in 2007 through Sotheby’s in New York to an English buyer who wanted to remain anonymous.   Before its sale, the Guennol Lioness had been on loan to the Brooklyn Museum of Arts for 60 years by its owner, Alastair Bradley Martin.

1. The Pinner Ming Dynasty Vase

This Pinner Qing Dynasty vase MAY be the most expensive Chinese antiquity ever sold – that is if the buyer actually ever pays up.  As of February 2012, no money had been collected for the vase, which had originally sold at auction through the Bainbridge auction house in November of 2010 for $69.5 million ($85.9 million after premiums and taxes).

There are many questions surrounding this particular vase.  The owners, a brother and a sister claim they found the 16-inch Qing Dynasty vase while cleaning out the home of their deceased sister, who lived in Pinner, England.  Experts who have examined it believe that the vase, which bears an imperial seal, dates to between 1735 and 1796.  Some people, however, question the authenticity of the vase.  Others believe that it could have been looted from China during the Second Opium War, which occurred between 1856 and 1860.

The winning bidder is believed to be one of the richest men in China, Wang Jianlin.  Although, it is not clear why he hasn’t paid, there is speculation that he is balking at the 20% fee that the Bainbridge auction house added to the final price.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.