Edgar Allan Poe’s Most Valuable Book Isn’t What You Might Expect

Occasionally, a copy turns up in the least expected places

Edgar Allan Poe's grave
Edgar Allan Poe's grave, with offerings.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Edgar Allan Poe’s work has had a massive influence on American letters — and on literature as a whole around the world. His fiction played a big part in the development of both mysteries and horror writing, to say nothing of the mood of Gothic desolation that some of his best work summons. (Which isn’t to say that Poe didn’t have less savory qualities as well.) But if you sought out the most expensive volume of his writing, it wouldn’t be his tales of detective C. Auguste Dupin or his sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

Instead, the priciest of Poe’s works is a collection of poetry that was published when he was all of 18. The book is called Tamerlane and Other Poems and, as Bradford Morrow explained in an article for Literary Hub, only 12 copies of the first edition exist. In 2009, one copy of the first edition of Tamerlane sold at auction for $662,500, setting a new record for the highest price fetched by a book by an American writer.

As Morrow pointed out in the article, the scarcity of Tamerlane means that some prominent collections lack a copy. “The Morgan Library doesn’t own a copy,” Morrow wrote. “Nor does the Library of Congress.” (The New York Public Library has two, however.) There’s also some ambiguity about whether or not there are 12 copies left or fewer; one of the 12 was stolen in 1973 and has yet to resurface. As Morrow noted, that copy of Tamerlane may well have been destroyed between then and now.

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That doesn’t mean that some copies of Tamerlane haven’t flown under the radar. In the article, Morrow describes his encounter with one of the extent copies, which found its way to its current home when it was discovered “in a bin of old farming pamphlets at an antique shop in Hampton, New Hampshire” in 1988. The collector who purchased it at the time spent all of $15.00 for it; it’s enough to leave you wondering what other rare literary artifacts might be out there, awaiting rediscovery.

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