Nation may lose £3.5m Shakespeare first edition
Richard Brooks, Arts Editor
A RARE first edition of Shakespeare’s complete plays is expected to sell for more than £3.5m at auction this week but could end up leaving Britain.
The compendium of 36 plays is being sold at Sotheby’s by Dr Williams’s Library in central London to raise funds to secure its future.
Few potential buyers in Britain are likely to be able to afford the book, printed in 1623 and one of the most complete copies of the first folio still in existence. Sotheby’s, the auctioneer, expects it to sell for between £3.5m and £5m.
“The frontrunners are the Japanese,” said Jonathan Bate, professor of Shakespeare studies at Warwick University. “Maybe an institution there or possibly an individual. But there’s really nobody who can afford it in Britain.”
Although 750 copies of the folio were originally printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, only about 220 survive and many of them are incomplete.
Eighteen of the plays in the folio had never before been printed. They include Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and As You Like It.
Shakespeare himself never authorised the publication or printing of any of his plays. They were sold by the playwright to his acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later called the King’s Men, who then released them.
The number of first folios in Britain is fewer than 30. The British Library has five and the Bodleian Library in Oxford has one. Others are owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the family of the late Sir John Paul Getty. He bought it in 2003 from Oriel College, Oxford, for £3.5m just six weeks before his death. The billionaire Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is also a recent buyer of a first folio.
Several folios contain handwritten comments by readers. “They tell us what people knew about Shakespeare and his reputation at the time,” said Kate McLuskie, director of the Shakespeare Institute.
The folio on sale this week retains its mid-17th-century binding of plain brown calf-skin. It is even more important because of its extensive markings and annotations by readers of the era. “The markings and the selection of the text that they signal are a major addition to this first folio,” said Peter Beal, an expert in English manuscripts.
Dr Williams’s Library, the leading research library for English Protestant dissent, has owned the first folio from at least 1716, the longest uninterrupted library ownership of any surviving example.
The Rev Dr Daniel Williams, a Protestant dissenting minister, bought the book as part of the library of Dr William Bates, another nonconformist cleric, for £500.
Dr Bates’s interest in the folio may have been influenced by the Puritan regime’s ban on all stage performances from 1642 until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, a unique occurrence in the theatre.
The last comparable first folio was sold by Christie’s in New York in 2001 for a hammer price of $5.6m, about £3m at current exchange rates.