Shakespeare First Folio sells for dramatic sum

By Geoff Harris

This must be the biggest rare-book story of the year.

An original and complete copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio dating from 1623, which brought the bard’s complete plays together for the first time, sold earlier this month for $8.4 million (£6.46 million). Christie’s New York sold the precious First Folio to book dealer, Stephan Loewentheil, who is also based in the city. This beat the previous auction high for a First Folio, $6.6 million (£3.73 million), which also went under the hammer at Christie’s New York in 2001.

Within the pages of the First Folio are 36 plays, and without its publication in 1623, 18 might well have been lost forever – including such important works as Macbeth. Here’s another interesting statistic – from the original 1623 print run of 750 copies, 235 have survived. Thirty six copies are in the UK, with the rest in US colleges and other institutions. The key to the value of this recently sold edition was its completeness; most of the 1623 First Folios have missing ‘leaves,’ or pages. These were replaced by pages from later editions (known as ‘breakers’), or by facsimilies. Only 56 copies are said to be complete.

Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, worked together to compile The First Folio, and its large format is believed to have helped boost Shakespeare’s reputation, as bigger book sizes were usually reserved for the Bible and works of law. Heminge and Condell also categorised the plays as comedies, tragedies, and histories, something that has lasted to this day.

“William Shakespeare is incomparably the greatest writer in the English language and one of most important international cultural influencers in all history,” said Loewentheil. “The First Folio is the most important collection of plays ever published and revered throughout the world. It is an honour to purchase one of only a handful of complete copies of this epochal volume. It will ultimately serve as a centrepiece of a great collection of intellectual achievements of man. We at the 19th-century Rare Book and Photograph Shop are pleased you have worked through Christie’s to obtain this wonderful treasure.” The purchase is reportedly destined for a private collection.

Meanwhile, Margaret Ford, International Head of Group, Books & Manuscripts, London added: “Christie’s is delighted to have established a new world auction record not only for a work by William Shakespeare, but for any work of literature. It is befitting that William Shakespeare’s First Folio, printed in 1623, holds this remarkable record, given its tremendous significance and influence around the globe.”

Assuming you won’t be in the bidding for the next First Folio to go to auction, what about collecting more recent and affordable editions? Bard enthusiasts should certainly watch out for the Tempest and A Midsummer Nights Dream, first published in 1908 and featuring 40 colour plates by the incomparable Arthur Rackham. The final edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was published in 1939 by the Limited Editions Club.

Rackham also illustrated two editions of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, one in 1899 and another in 1909. Originally published in 1807, the tales are reworked to appeal to children.

Beyond Rackham, look out for editions of Shakespeare from The Folio Society, Easton Press, and the Limited Editions Club. As well as beautiful cloth and leather bindings, other famous illustrators were brought on board to illustrate some of these editions, such as Salvador Dali and W. Heath Robinson. Reputable online suppliers such as Abe Books are a good source, as are rare book dealers with physical shops. If you are in doubt, you can contact the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association to see local members.

“We are the senior trade body for dealers in antiquarian and rare books, manuscripts and allied materials in the British Isles,” its website explains. “Founded in 1906 and the oldest organisation of its kind in the world, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association represents the interests of over 230 member businesses, by creating a standard of business ethics and professional standards.”

Finally, it’s always fun to scan antiques fairs and flea markets for general Shakespeare memorabilia, such as busts, statues, decorated plates, or even framed frontispieces from old collections of the plays – these can be beautifully illustrated with engravings.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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