A Shakespeare First Folio Comes Up For Sale
A Shakespeare First Folio will be sold at Sotheby's in July.
By Michael Stillman
It is a cultural icon and almost certainly the most notable literary work ever published. In fact, it may well be the second most collectible book in the world, second only to the Gutenberg Bible. We could, of course, only be talking about the Shakespeare first folio. It has long been extraordinarily desirable to collectors, but as the years have gone by, it has gone from being very hard to find and prohibitively expensive to buy, to virtually impossible to obtain. For a moment this July, it will revert to its status of being just hard to find and prohibitively expensive.
On July 13, in London, Sotheby's will be auctioning a copy of Shakespeare's first folio. From what we hear, it is a remarkably good copy. It has been in one library since at least 1716. Sotheby's states that this is the longest time any copy of the first folio has been in one library. They also describe this copy as one of the two finest to appear at auction in London since the Second World War. Unlike many copies, which were rebound in fancier bindings in the 19th century, this one remains in a 17th century plain brown calf binding, more contemporary and desirable to today's collectors.
What makes the first folio so spectacularly important is that it saved a great many of Shakespeare's works from oblivion. Shakespeare did not publish his plays, and whatever scripts were around for their performances have long since disappeared. The result is that half of the 36 plays printed herein would have been lost were it not for this edition. The list of works preserved only because of the first folio reads like a laundry list of the greatest English literature ever written: Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, A Winter's Tale, The Tempest, All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Henry VIII, King John, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, Timon of Athens, Two Gentleman of Verona, and Henry VI Part I.
Fortunately, seven years after Shakespeare's death, at the behest of some actors, this collection of his works was published. The year was 1623, and an estimated 750 copies were printed. It is believed about a third of them survive. Most are incomplete. This copy is complete with the exception it does not contain the page of verses which precedes the title page, provided instead in facsimile. The remainder is all present, making this an unusually complete copy.
A Shakespeare First Folio Comes Up For Sale
The provenance of this copy is most interesting. It belonged to the Rev. Dr. Daniel Williams around the beginning of the 18th century. Williams was a leader in the Protestant Dissident movement at the time, a man about whom little is known of his youth, but who arose to considerable significance in the theological arguments of the day. It is not certain where he obtained his first folio, but he purchased the library of another dissenter, Dr. William Bates, who died in 1699, and it is likely this copy was in that collection. Bates was born two years after the first folio was published, so while he obviously did not purchase it new, he likely was one of the earliest to hold it.
In his will, Williams made provision for his library to be turned over to a trust for public enjoyment. He died a wealthy man, leaving 7,600 books to the trust, and lots of money for other good causes. Williams was married twice, and apparently both of his wives had money, which may explain how a minister ended up with a substantial estate. The trust he formed in 1716, officially known as the Dr. Williams Trust, is to run for 2,000 years, so it does still have another 1,700-plus years to go. In order to provide funds for maintaining the library and other projects, as well as reducing insurance costs, the Dr. Williams Trust has decided, after possessing this copy for almost 300 years, to put it up for auction.
The Williams copy has some fairly heavy annotation. These notations evidently give some insight into how a contemporary, or near contemporary reader viewed this work. As such, they provide some useful interpretive information, though I'm not sure this is quite as beneficial to the copy as the folks at Sotheby's seem to feel.
Sotheby's expects the first folio to "fetch" £2.5-£3.5 million. That comes to roughly $4.5-$6.3 million in U.S dollars. This estimate does not include buyer's premium. It is based on the last first folio to sell at auction, a copy auctioned by Christie's in 2001 for $5.6 million. Perhaps they will be right, but given the rise in prices for ultra-premium material, I would not be at all surprised if this one goes flying past the estimates. After all, this is just about the most collectible book in the world, and it is almost unobtainable. Until and unless the Folger Library starts flooding the market with their collection (the Folger owns an incredible 79 copies of the first folio), there will continue to be far more potential buyers than sellers for this essential and magnificent classic. Don't go to this auction expecting a bargain!