13 October 2020
· Prologue: A 1623 First Folio finally goes to auction ·
At the beginning of this year, auction impresario Christie’s aimed to put on a show of high (-priced) drama. The effort was disrupted by a calamity I’ve seen before: the playhouse closed due to contagion in the city. Much has altered in the wake of the new plague, but after half a year’s delay the show is now set to open.
All the world’s on stage
- • Tomorrow: Wednesday, 14 October, 2020
- • 10am EDT, 3pm BST
The curtain will rise on The Exceptional Sale at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center, New York City. The cast of twenty-eight mirrors the globe in its cultural and temporal diversity. A Roman statue of Eros. A Ming dynasty imperial palace carpet. A whalebone club carved with totems of the Haida people. A trumpet once owned by Louis Armstrong. Silver that shines like the moon, ormolu that glisters like gold.
The star of the show is Lot 12, a venerable English thespian.
Following Jonson’s wise counsel.
From Christie’s playbill:
- • A fine and complete copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1623)
- • The most important book in English literature and an icon of world literature
- • The First Folio uniquely preserves eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays
- • The first complete copy to be offered at auction since 2001
- • Only five complete copies are known to remain in private hands
- • Accompanied by an autograph letter dated 1809 by the great Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone, attesting to its cleanness and authenticity
Oxfordian Ben August bought my little Italian Herodotus a year ago, but I don’t expect this big book of plays to go to anyone who understands that Warwickshire William didn’t write them. We have not yet attained that hour (these would be delicious words to eat). The publicity so far, and what will follow after the applause— with very few exceptions, straight out of Stratford’s prompt book. Easy, lazy, safe, wrong.
Sweet are the uses of adversity
Take heart. Even the most pedestrian media coverage of Shakespeare spotlights the insuperable problem of Shakspere. Those who find themselves unsatisfied with the old unanswers are cued to reconsider the play-Bill they’ve been handed. The last time a comparable First Folio went to auction was nineteen years ago . Much more is known about me now, and better Oxfordian resources are available in print and online. The net result of attention like this is inevitably, even if not immediately, positive. Every questioner, every question, is a step forward on the path to Truth.
Assuredly the thing is to be sold
This First Folio is estimated to sell for four to six million dollars (US), but auctions of such rare items are rarely predictable. If I were wagering, I’d take the over. The copy is a finer one than any you’re likely to see for sale in future, and the world contains many more immensely wealthy people than it did when Henry Folger was snapping up every Folio he could get his Standard Oily hands on.
Autolycus was a tricksy Greek thief,
but you can do better than that.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book XI,
then my The Winter’s Tale.
Three weeks ago Christie’s hiked their rates on the buyer’s premium they add to winning bids. Let’s say the hammer falls at $8 million. With the new fee and something for taxesI decided not to subject anyone to my painful number-crunching. If you want to see my figures, DM me on Twitter. Bring Rhenish., it could take more than $10 million to get the book into the
taxi limo. Then there’s safe transport to its new home, customs duty if a border is involved, and the ongoing cost of archival care and storage once it settles in. Don’t forget the insurance.
I wonder if its new owner will, even once, carry it to a cosy chair beside a good lamp, sit down, and read for a while.
Yet words do well
What ultimately makes a First Folio valuable isn’t its age or condition, or even its scarcity. Sure, the economic laws of supply and demand apply to the physical object, but think for a moment about that demand, why it exists in the first place. Plenty of rare old books wouldn’t bring so much as a fiver now, because what they say is no longer meaningful.
The Folio’s words bestow its worth. Words that continue to resonate with relevance after more than four hundred years. My words. Words that could not have been written by anyone else, and were not.
Mercifully, once detached from the aged pages of Jaggard and Blount my words do not come so dear. As publiſhed or modernised, translated, adapted— they are ubiquitous, for the price of your internet connection. Should you prefer to read from paper I can vouch for the sensory pleasure of a Big Red First Folio. Though it will set you back a hundred quid, think of all you can do with the millions you save.
But if only the True Originall is
[ahead to Part 2, Epilogue]
 Nineteen years almost exactly: 8-9 October, 2001. Estimated at $2-3 million, that First Folio sold for $6,166,000 (£4,166,000). In 2006, a less complete copy sold in London for £2,808,000 ($5,153,000), and in 2016 a set of all four Folios (1623, 1632, 1664, 1685) went for £2,479,000 ($3,644,000). (Conversion rates at the time of the auction.) There may have been a few others this century, but these were the most notable.
More words about the First Folio
- • Diseases Desperate Growne (original post about the present auction)
- · A First Folio was to be auctioned in New York next month, but the plans have changed
- · 18 March 2020
- • Guest Poet Ben Jonson: To the Reader. Try Again.
- · Jonson gets a do-over on his First Folio introduction
- · 04 March 2017
- • The Graver’s Strife
- · Was Martin Droeshout a lousy engraver? (spoiler: no)
- · 26 April 2019
- • 393 Years of Printing: Plays to Pancakes on a Pilgrimage
- · My visit with a First Folio
- · 26 February 2017
- Image Sources
- • Photos of the Mills College First Folio in my auction posts (before the photoshoppery) come from the image gallery included in the lot description at christies.com.
- • Play-Bill modelled on this one, from the National Theatre production of As You Like It that toured the US and Canada in 1974. The cast was entirely male, with Gordon Kaye as Audrey and Nigel Hawthorne as Touchstone. [playbill.com]
- · Interesting write-up about the somewhat controversial, short (eight performances) Broadway run that ended the tour, by retired theatre professor Samuel L Leiter. [slleiter.blogspot.com]
- · Recollections and photos from tour musician and understudy Michael Barker. [caldecottassociation.org.uk]
- • Cartoon, Autolycus, U.S.A. [archive.org]
- · drawn by Bernard Partridge
- · Punch, or the London Charivari
- · 24 May 1922, pg 411