Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2006 Issue

Shakespeare First Folio Sells For Over $5 Million

Firstfolio

A Shakespeare First Folio.


By Michael Stillman

A copy of the rare First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays was sold at auction for the first time in five years on July 13, 2006. When the hammer went down at Sotheby's in London, the final bid stood at £2,808,000, or approximately $5,153,000 in U.S. dollars. It was the highest price ever paid for a First Folio at a London auction, and the highest price for any printed book at a Sotheby's London auction. From what we have seen, this appears to be the highest price paid for any book this year, and it is more than was paid for any book or manuscript in 2005 save one -- a copy of the double elephant folio edition of Audubon's Birds of America which went for $5,616,000.

The winning bid was placed by Simon Finch Rare Books of London. However, Finch was not buying on speculation or for stock, but evidently on behalf of a specific buyer. The ultimate buyer was not named. Sotheby's auctioneer and specialist in charge of this sale, Peter Selley, described the final purchaser simply as a "collector."

The price paid was within the estimated range, but did fall at the lower end, and was less than was paid for a copy sold at auction five years ago in New York. Asked whether the lower bid versus the 2001 sale indicated anything about the state of the market, Mr. Selley responded, "The 2001 copy was different, that is all one can say." He noted that in some respects, the 2001 copy was inferior to the one sold by Sotheby's (Dr. Daniel Williams' copy). The earlier copy, he noted, was partly made up, that is, had a few leaves taken from other copies. It also had a later binding. On the other hand, Dr. Williams' copy was missing the "To the reader" leaf at the front, which the previous one contained, a significant drawback. Mr. Selley said that he did not believe the heavy annotations in the Williams' copy, in a very old hand, detracted from the value. "They would add value, if anything," was the view he expressed.

Mr. Selley stated that he believes it is too early to reach any conclusions about the book market based on this sale. At this level, there are not many potential customers, so prices can fluctuate significantly based on the presence or absence of even a single highly motivated buyer. "One has to remember that for the book market any figure above £1 million is a very large sum, perhaps equivalent to £50 - 60m in the picture market," he explains. "There are normally only going to be a very small number of actual bidders on the day."

The Shakespeare First Folio is certainly the most important piece of English literature ever published. Many of Shakespeare's works were not published at the time they were performed, this collection being the only contemporary printing of them. Eighteen of his works, including the likes of MacBeth, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Twelfth Night would almost surely have been lost forever if a group of Shakepeare's admirers had not published this edition in 1623. It is estimated that around 750 copies were printed, and that about a third of them survive. As such it is not the rarest of books, but it certainly is one of the most important ever published.

Dr. Williams' copy had been left to a trust which managed his library. After holding the copy continuously since 1716, the longest any first folio has remained in a single collection, the trust decided to sell its copy so that its value could be used for other purposes. The considerable funds raised in this sale should help the Trust substantially in its other endeavors.

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