Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2020 Issue

Financially Squeezed College Is Selling Its Shakespeare First Folio

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A different copy of a Shakespeare First Folio.

The Oakland Raiders aren't the only cherished institution leaving Oakland. A much older one is also on its way out. William Shakespeare, or at least his most important book, is also bidding adieu to Oakland. A copy of the First Folio edition of his Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies is being sold by Mills College. The importance of this book cannot be overstated. Had it not been compiled by friends seven years after his death, many of Shakespeare's plays, including Macbeth, would have been lost forever. Mills is also selling a manuscript, believed to be their handwritten musical score by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This is a sad event, but one we have seen before and will see again. Welcome to the age of stretched college budgets and declining use of school libraries. Welcome to the age of the internet.

 

Mills, a 165-year-old predominantly women's college, has run into financial difficulties over the past few years. In 2017, it declared a “financial emergency.” It was running multi-million dollar annual deficits by that point. Mills had seen a significant reduction in applications, and consequently, admissions, over the preceding few years. Many of their applicants come from low income families as well, meaning some tuition cuts, as opposed to increases, were needed. The emergency declaration enabled them to lay off both staff and professors, including some on tenure. The college also announced a reorganization program called MillsNext to adjust curriculum offerings to those of greater interest to prospective students, rather than just sticking with some unpopular majors and relying on cutting costs to balance the budget.

 

Now, as a part of its MillsNext program, the college has decided to sell “two precious assets,” as President Elizabeth Hillman described them. Reportedly, an internal email by Ms. Hillman explained, “In order to continue to support Mills’ current programs and people while we build a bridge to a sustainable future, the college has decided to sell two precious assets. These gifts have been treasured deeply by the Mills community and will now be sold in compliance with college regulations.”

 

The prize is the Shakespeare First Folio. It was a gift to the college in 1977 by Mary Louise O'Brien and her husband, James, in honor of her father, Elias Olan James. Evidently, there must be no major strings attached to that gift. Elias James taught English literature at Mills. That was quite a gift. First Folios are valued in the millions of dollars, the exact number of millions depending on condition. We have seen prices, at current value, this century range from $1 million for a defective copy to $7 million. It is not clear where this one falls, but something in the $4-$6 million range would not be unreasonable. Reportedly, Christie's will conduct the sale, but they have made no announcements let alone estimates yet. The Mozart manuscript is said be being sold privately, a reasonable estimate at least well into six figures.

 

A total of 235 copies of the First Folio are known to still exist against an estimated print run of 750. The Folger Library in Washington owns 82 of them. You can never have too many First Folios. We don't know whether they will be a bidder when the sale takes place.

 

Naturally, there have been some expressions of disappointment. This sale does not meet official library standards that books should be sold only to expand or preserve collections, not for such things as operating expenses. Nonetheless, Mills finds itself in a financial bind and the long-term viability of the institution demands they find a way out. The college does have an endowment, but still, you cannot go on indefinitely operating at a deficit unless you are the United States Government. Mills needs that “bridge” to take it to financial viability, and hopefully this will enable the college to cross that bridge, while finding good homes for these treasured assets.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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