Once in a generation opportunity to own Shakespeare’s First Folio

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A complete copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio is to be auctioned for the first time in nearly two decades. Only five complete copies of the Folio remain in private ownership and, this April, Christie’s will offer the first at auction since 2001 with a guide price of between $4m and $6m.

No one figure has had such impact on the English language as William Shakespeare, but that impact could have been lost had it not been for his friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell. The pair compiled Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies in the years proceeding the writer’s death, the work is often to referred to as the First Folio.

Published seven years after Shakespeare died, in 1623, the First Folio brought together the author’s collected plays for the first time. The folio edition contains 36 plays, including 17 that were printed during his lifetime, one that was printed after his death, and 18 that might have otherwise been lost — among them MacbethTwelfth NightMeasure for Measure and Julius Caesar.  

“To handle a First Folio by William Shakespeare is always a privilege and even a humbling experience,” says Margaret Ford, International Head of Books & Manuscripts in London. “Shakespeare resonates around the world.”

There are thought to be some 235 copies of the First Folio in various states of completeness. Through the centuries attempts have been made at preserving copies of the Folio, with incomplete copies taken apart and paired with other imperfect versions. Consequently, fully intact versions are incredibly rare. The last time a complete copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio came to market was in 2001 at Christie’s in New York. It sold for $6,166,000, which remains an auction record, that copy was sold from the library of Abel E. Berland, the bibliophile and collector of rare manuscripts.

“By the 18th century,” explains Ford, “books had come to be considered objects of art in their own right, elevating the First Folio to new heights; it was treasured not only for its text but as a physical object.”

This Folio is in exceptional condition, according to Christie’s, and comes with a letter from Edmond Malone, the Shakespearean scholar and editor of the late 18th-early 19th century.

“Knowing that this copy was once in the hands of Malone, who himself affirmed its completeness 200 years ago, is very exciting,’ says Ford. ‘An opportunity like this comes around only once a generation.”

The First Folio will be toured to London from 13-19 January, New York from 22-27 January, Hong Kong from 17-20 March, Beijing from 1-3 April, and back to New York ahead of the auction on 24 April.