Shakespeare’s First Folio at Christie’s: 10 million? Bargain!

Shakespeare is still too cheap. The first edition of his so-called First Folio went over the counter in 1623 for one pound, but it still had to be tied across the street, which was possibly even more expensive, depending on whether you opted for expensive cowhide or cheap calfskin.

In order to be able to really assess the price, one would have to ask a relevant expert, preferably a mixture of literary and economic scholars. Jim Shapiro of Columbia University, one of the most knowledgeable researchers of the bard – “the Bard” is Shakespeare’s nickname in the Anglo-Saxon world – reports, for example, that the still quite young, thirty-couple-year-old Shakespeare settled in shortly before the turn of the century (17th century, mind you) bought a theater for 70 pounds as a partner, “today’s equivalent of some 100,000 dollars”.

Perhaps a pound for the first printed Shakespeare was not necessarily a bargain even then. But there were only 750 copies of the book, which at that time was of course not yet called “First Folio”, but “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies ”, of which about 235 have survived.

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Almost 400 years later, the price has definitely increased. The first edition of Shakespeare’s collected dramatic works has now been auctioned at Christie’s in New York for $ 9.98 million, or £ 7.66 million. The bid came in over the phone, but it might only come from a few streets further. The buyer Stephan Loewentheil, an antiquarian who specializes in very rare, very old and very expensive books, runs the “19th Century Rare Book & Photography Shop“.

On his website The famous likeness of Shakespeare, which is actually taken from the frontispiece of the First Folio, radiates prominently towards you. The new acquisition is currently not for sale there under the heading “Great Books of Western Civilization”. Instead, you can shoot a King James Bible for a mere $ 300,000 or the first edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, the archetypal American cycle of poems, for $ 270,000.

But maybe coming soon. Loewentheil advertised the work immediately after buying it at auction: “The First Folio is the most important collection of pieces ever published that is revered all over the world. It is an honor to purchase one of just a handful of complete copies of this epoch-making volume. It will one day serve as the centerpiece of a great collection of human intellectual achievements. ”Which, one must admit, he didn’t even pile up.

There is something fishy in the state of Denmark – folios

The story of the First Folios purchases, sales, and wanderings is as thrilling as a Scandinavian thriller. Speaking of which, in Denmark, where one would assume, out of poetic justice, a few copies of the book that gave the world to “Hamlet” and with it the immortal line “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, there is not a single edition. Not even in China, the entire Middle East (who buys, typically nouveau riche, prefers soccer clubs or the Louvre) or Israel, where one would be particularly interested in the figure of the Jew Shylock in the “Merchant of Venice”.

Instead, the Folger Library is located in Washington, DC, equal to 82 copies. Most of the others are in London, Oxford, the French National Library in Paris, et cetera. Only six first folios are privately owned.

Also six years ago, the librarian Rémy Cordonnier discovered an original in a particularly dusty corner of his small provincial library in Saint-Omer in northern France, which a fugitive Catholic had apparently brought with him from the newly Protestant England in the 17th century.

He looked something like this: William Shakespeare

He looked something like this: William Shakespeare

Quelle: picture alliance / Photo12/Ann Ronan Picture Librar

But unfortunately that doesn’t happen very often. The Bodleian Library in Oxford had bought a copy immediately after publication – as I said: 1623 – but lost it, later rediscovered and bought back in the country house of some impoverished nobleman.

This only succeeded after a tremendous effort, when an anonymous counter-bidder turned up offering the then unheard-of sum of £ 3,000, which the Bodleian Library could only match by starting a fundraising campaign that hundreds of people joined. As a punishment, because some honorable professors had refused to contribute, their names were published in a list of those unwilling to donate. This same edition traveled to Singapore in 2017.

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Why was it initially claimed that even just under ten million dollars were still too cheap? Because this free-floating series of six represent nothing less than the vanishing point of western civilization. On the other hand, to take up the metaphor straight away, the invention of the central perspective is a bit of a mess.

If Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell hadn’t taken it upon themselves to bundle and print the 36 pieces by the poet, who died seven years earlier, half would have been lost because they had remained unpublished until now, including “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar ”,“ Twelfth Night ”,“ The Tempest ”,“ Antony and Cleopatra ”,“ The Comedy of Errors ”and“ As You Like It ”. That cannot be outweighed with money.


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