March 05th, 2023
Could a Billionaire Bibliophile Go Broke?
I don’t have many luxuries and probably fantasize about being rich less than your average American. But I do like books, and sometimes do indulge in thinking about how many and which ones I’d buy if I became superrich. Of course, my main problem if I became filthy rich would not be going broke, but losing my mind. I have little doubt that if I became a billionaire, I’d create a pleasure palace for myself—walling myself off from humanity—then become a prisoner of said-pleasures.
It would get weird, quick. Like Howard Hughes weird, wearing Kleenex boxes on the feet, fighting a war against microbes, and watching the same movie playing constantly on a loop weird. Incidentally, did you know that Howard Hughes purchased the Silver Slipper Casino on a whim, because he was convinced there was a camera hidden in the toe of the iconic spangled slipper?
Assuming I didn’t go nuts, though, and I just had a lot of money, and I spent it on nothing but books, could I spend it all?
The most expensive book in history is the Codex Leicester by Leonardo Da Vinci, a diary of the 16th century genius, including his thoughts on various subjects. At one point it was owned by the sociopathic businessman Armand Hammer, who promptly diced the thing up into its constituent parts, intending to sell it bit by bit. The book was later purchased by software pirate, high-school dropout, and habitué of Jeffrey Epstein’s Pedophile Island Bill Gates. But Gates at least had the good taste to put the Ginsu-sliced book back together and make it available for public viewing. He also included scanned pages as optional desktop backgrounds for Windows users, allowing the peasants a chance to view excerpts from the priceless tome. Much as the illiterate once entered cathedrals and gazed upon the technicolored opulence of stained glass gothic tracery windows, we all can now enjoy diagrams of winged ornithopters and Vitruvian men while navigating our way through shitty software stolen from Xerox in Palo Alto.
The Codex sold to Gates for 30.8 million dollars, which inflation-adjusts to 50.4 million dollars. That’s a spicy meatball, but I’d need to buy the same book almost twenty times over in order to hit the lint in my pockets. And after that, the drop-off from the most expensive to the second-most expensive is quick and rather precipitous.
More recently a handwritten printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon was purchased by the LDS church for 35 million dollars, inflation-adjusted to 37.5 million. Sure, initially it cost more than the Codex, but only because it was purchased later, with a less powerful dollar. After both tomes are inflation-adjusted, Da Vinci commands a higher price than Joseph Smith.
Still no word on the location of the Golden Plates that the Angel Moroni gave to Joseph Smith, though I imagine if they were found they’d fetch a mint.
I’m being facetious, but since the third most expensive book on the list is worth much less than the first two, it would help to start searching for priceless works rather than going to market for books worth a few measly tens of millions. If I can speculate on being a billionaire, I can speculate on using that money as an inducement to lure private collectors and galleries into parting with books too timeless to sport price tags.
A quick search for “priceless books” and “most priceless books in the world” just leads me back to the Leicester Codex, though, showing a paucity of imagination on the part of whoever composes such lists.
Are there any books that are literally priceless—whose speculative price is so high as to be meaningless? Is there a literary equivalent of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which has been estimated at being worth over a billion dollars?
The answer is a qualified yes, stated plainly in these unsatisfying but honest terms: such books might exist, but they are apocryphal and would have to be found before they could be priced, then sold.
Certain books are known to have existed—referenced by various philosophers throughout the ages—either destroyed in sackings by vandals or lost to time. These include books by Archimedes and Aristotle, Homer and Ovid. Getting away from Attic antiquity and moving toward the Levant, we have the supposedly lost works of the antediluvian patriarch Enoch. If the Mormons are willing to pay thirty million dollars for a book that wasn’t even lost or apocryphal, mightn’t a richer and more established church pay more for the nigh-priceless?
According to Vatican Finance Minister Antonio Guerrero Alves, the Holy See is worth about five billion dollars. That’s on the books, though. If they also have lots of old gold looted from Jews during the various inquisitions and expulsions—in addition to what they took from Saracens in conquest—they might have even more. And I bet they would be willing to send a friar down into the catacombs where they keep the stuff stashed, and liquidate that for more ready cash. It might be hard for the Church to get rid of the gold on the open market, but the Chicoms would likely scoop it up quickly.
Speaking of China, Classic of Music is a lost Confucian tome from the Third Century BCE, reportedly destroyed by the Qin Dynasty in a spiteful act of iconoclasm. The same act of destruction also supposedly involved the live burial of several hundred Confucian scholars, which no doubt bothered the scribes more than the book burning. I love my books, but nowhere near as much as I dread being buried alive.
Years ago I read a book Whale in the Desert, about the superrich gamblers who hit Vegas and fade something like $250,000 per hand at baccarat. A lot of these said-whales were high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party, who had appetites that would not only shame Howard Hughes, but make Croesus blush.
There was one, for instance, who requested that all the toilets in his suites be filled with gold dust, and that the same gilding be applied to the shells of the lobsters he ate. Another loved the slots so much that he had a whole floor of the casino rented out and filled with the machines trucked in via elevator on pallets so he could play alone. Truck after truck backed up to the casino’s rear loading dock, so filled with coins withdrawn from banks that the truck shocks were damaged by the weight.
Surely someone with that level of obscene wealth might raise their bidder’s fan at Sotheby’s one too many times, or simply give the slightest, almost imperceptible nod to the auctioneer, putting me out of the running?
But they might also bow out at the exact moment my own spite bid reached a billion, leaving me broke and with a book I didn’t want. But at least I would have spent my billion bucks on books (or rather book), thus answering the question posed at the beginning of this entry.
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