This 1,700-Year-Old Book Just Sold for $3.9 Million at Auction

The oldest known book in a private collection just sold for a price worthy of its claim to fame.

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex hammered down for an eye-popping £3.1 million, or $3.9 million, during a Christie’s auction in London on Tuesday. That just beat the high estimate for the manuscript, which was expected to achieve some $2.6 million to $3.8 million.

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The 104-page codex, which was written around 250 to 350 A.D., is one of the earliest books in existence, and one of the earliest witnesses to the spread of Christianity. Among its pages, it includes the earliest complete text of 1 Peter and Jonah, with it being the single most important manuscript of the former. It similarly contains one of the earliest accounts of the Maccabees and is the oldest Christian liturgical manuscript in the world.

“It’s right at that period, that transitional period, when papyrus scroll starts turning into codex form,” Eugenio Donadoni, a senior specialist in Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at Christie’s, said back in April, when the sale was first announced. “So, books as we know them today. And what we have in this book is the earliest known texts of two books of the Bible.”

While it’s unclear what happened to the Crosby-Schøyen Codex immediately after it was written, it was discovered in Egypt in the 1950s. (The country’s dry climate had helped preserve it.) It was then sent to the University of Mississippi, where it sat until 1981. Seven years later, collector Martin Schøyen acquired the book, and it’s his collection that was brought to auction this week.

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex was clearly the star of the show, but one other manuscript cracked the $1 million mark. The Codex Sinaiticus Rescriptus, whose underlying text is from the late 5th to 7th century, realized £1.3 million, or $1.7 million. Both sums, however, pale in comparison to what the Codex Sasson hammered down for last year: Sotheby’s auctioned off the 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible for a staggering $38.1 million.

The Christie’s sale this week may not have matched that impressive total, but the Crosby-Schøyen Codex is a manuscript deserving of its multimillion-dollar price tag—though some may say owning one of the earliest books in existence is simply priceless.

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