Oldest known book in private hands sells for $3.9 million

Crosby-Schøyen Codex considered 'earliest Christian liturgical book in existence'

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The oldest known book in private hands sold for $3.9 million Tuesday morning at Christie’s.

Believed to be written between the middle third century and early fourth century, the Crosby-Schøyen Codex is considered the “earliest Christian liturgical book in existence.”

Christie's had placed an estimate of between $2.6 million and $3.8 million prior to the auction.

The codex, another word for a pamphlet of papyrus stitched together to create an early version of the modern book, was written by an Egyptian monk who copied important religious texts onto the ancient book for the purpose of religious celebration. Among the texts included in the Codex are the Old Testament Book of Jonah and the First Epistle of Peter.

Eugenio Donadoni, Christie’s senior specialist in Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, says in the lot description that there is evidence of earlier codices, but none have survived to present day.

“What we are seeing here is a community that is steeped in Jewish tradition, trying to figure out how to be Christians in the world,” said Donadoni in a release. "What we have in this book is the earliest known texts of two books of the Bible."

The Codex was buried, alongside other texts, sometime around the sixth or seventh century, likely in an attempt to protect it against the Arab conquest of Egypt. These texts remained uncovered for over 1,000 years, only to be discovered by Egyptian farmers in the early 1950s. It was then sold by a Cairo dealer to David Moore Robinson of the University of Mississippi in 1954.

One of the largest donors from whom the University raised the funds to acquire the Codex, Margaret Reed Crosby, called it “the ugliest book [she] had ever seen” after first laying eyes on the ancient text, according to Christie's.

The Codex Sassoon, believed to be the earliest and most complete Hebrew Bible (Circa 900), sold for $38.13 million in May 2023, setting the record for the most expensive book ever sold at public auction.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct. You can follow him on X at @Will__Stern.