The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio

Two books often come up for auction, recognized by bibliophiles as two of the most sought out and expensive books ever published: John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1830s) and William Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623). In 2010, Sothebys auctioned one of each from the estate of the late Lord Hesketh. Birds was sold for $11.5 million, making it the most expensive book ever sold. The First Folio, on the other hand, was valued at $2-3 million, although recent auctions have established a price of $6-12 million. There are 120 complete copies of Birds and 107 of those are owned by institutions and 13 are owned by private collectors. Because the oversized pages (measuring 36 inches tall by 24 inches wide) are so valuable, 14 of the books were deconstructed and sold as single pages. On January 20, 2012, Christie’s of New York will be auctioning an edition owned by the Marquess of Titchfield.

In 1623, seven years after William Shakespeare shuffled off his mortal coil, two actors — John Heminge and Henry Condell — compiled and printed 36 of Shakespeare’s plays using his working or completed transcripts of the plays. Were it not for the actors’ dedicated work over several years, 18 of the plays would have been lost to the ages, since they had never been published in any form. The book was typeset by five different type compositors that introduced a number of typographical errors (500 errors were caught during publication, but scores were left uncorrected). A total of 750 copies — selling for the reasonable price of one pound — were printed and of those 232 are known to exist today, owned by libraries, universities, and very wealthy (and shall we dare say, obsessed) private collectors. Rasmussen, a respected and prolific Shakespeare scholar (over 60 books on Shakespeare and Renaissance drama) living in Reno, Nevada — a city not necessarily recognized as the fount of Shakespearean scholarship, although a locale that would attract the Groundlings like moths to a flame), and his team attempted to track down all 232 copies of the First Folio. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. boasts the lion’s share with 82 copies of the First Folio.

Rasmussen’s book offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of one of the most important books of the English language and the collectors who have sought this literary Holy Grail. Those lacking the budget for such a notable and expensive acquisition can find some satisfaction in viewing the digital version of the First Folio found at the University of Virginia Library, or the Folger Library Collection, or owning the very affordable print edition, The First Folio of Shakespeare: The Norton Facsimile published in 1968 (first edition) and 1996 (second edition). Octavo has also produced a digital facsimile on CDROM for the hoi polloi.

The Shakespeare Thefts by Eric Rasmussen, Palgrave (2011).

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