First Folio 2: You Are Not For All Markets

Mills FF spine MDCXXIII - Shakespeare First Folio auction result

· 14 October 2020 ·
[Epilogue: The result of today’s auction]

As I hurried to complete this post-auction post, an old friend appeared in my mind’s eye. Late in 1576 George Gascoigne was just back from just-sacked Antwerp, hustling to finish his faithfull report of the spoyle and get it printed and into bookstalls before anyone could scoop his story and cut into his sales. (He cut corners to do it, as I’ve previously explained.) GG would have taken on a whole tercio of Spaniards for content delivery this fast, as long as it included a paywall.

The pre-auction post is here.

This wide and universal theatre

Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BCE of a time before his own, when Babylonian bachelors would bid on prospective brides at auctions held annually for the purpose. The proceeds from the rich and beautiful girls provided dowries for those too poor or plain to entice bidders without a douceur. Herodotus may have been telling a tall tale (he did a lot of that), but the story attests the long standing of the auction in history.

1808 aquatint engraving, Christie's auction room - Shakespeare First Folio auction resultI recall participating in a couple of what I’d describe as informally competitive sales of horseflesh (I was buying) or land (I was selling), but the modern English auction took another century to evolve. In the decades following the Restoration (1660) London’s taverns and its new coffeehouses competed for customers by hosting art auctions; James Christie opened his permanent saleroom in 1766. His eponymous company continues to deal in art, jewellery, furnishings, and the occasional misattributed old book. They also hold wine auctions, run an international real estate brokerage, and only last week sold the fossil skeleton of a 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex named Stan for almost thirty-two million dollars.

Buy it with your gold quite suddenly

It’s easier to quote dollars for a US-based auction, but the amounts can be converted to other currencies here. Round figures on 14 Oct— for British pounds, multiply dollars by 0.77; for Euros, 0.85; for Chinese yuan, 6.72.

Christie’s streamed The Exceptional Sale on live video, optimal for a deceased, internet-connected playwright wanting to watch his book of comedies, histories, & tragedies sell for a great deal of money. Alas, the view was only a static close shot of the auctioneer at the podium. Lovely though she was, it was functionally an audio feed. The items at auction were present only as photos displayed on the wall, out of the video frame. I imagine the production design would have been more dramatic back in April. So much for Part 1’s theatrical metaphor.

Mills College First Folio cover horizontalLot 12
Estimate: 4,000,000 to 6,000,000 USD
Hammer (winning bid): 8,400,000
Buyer’s premium (commission): 1,578,000
Total (not including taxes and tips): 9,978,000

I wasn’t far off guessing a winning bid of eight million. At seven million, the auctioneer made the obligatory to bid or not to bid, that is the question joke. I was waiting for it.

The winner’s identity was not disclosed. Paddle #1304. I’ll update the post if I learn anything later.

Later: That didn’t take long, a couple of hours. According to Reuters and others, the book was purchased by American antiquarian and rare book collector Stephan Loewentheil, founder of the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop in New York and Baltimore. It’s not the first First Folio he has bought, but it might be the best. It’s certainly the costliest.

Loewentheil:

William Shakespeare [alas, as expected] is incomparably the greatest writer in the English language, and one of most important international cultural influencers in all history. The First Folio is the most important collection of plays ever published, and is revered throughout the world. It is an honor to purchase one of only a handful of complete copies of this epochal volume. It will ultimately serve as a centerpiece of a great collection of intellectual achievements of man.

Well then. Gratifying to see that sort of praise, even when misdirected.

So the book stays in the States.Shakespeare First Folio auction result

Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history

Spare some sympathy for poor Mr Loewentheil (figure of speech) who had to cover the extra cost of the book’s case of COVID-19. Had today’s sale occurred in April as planned, the premium would have been $1,409,000. With the delay and last month’s fee hike, that amount increased by $169,000. I suppose he can afford it.

I make him a standing offer:

Allow me to borrow the book for a couple of days, without the impedimenta of bulletproof glass or armed guards. I’ll wear gloves, and keep it well away from the sack flagon. In return for the reading time, I’ll correct a couple of errors at the front, and add an autographed portrait. You, Mr Loewentheil, dealer in expensive rare books, could own the only First Folio signed by the Author (we can have a little chat about that).

Think what it would do for its value.

First Folio title page, fixed by the author - Shakespeare First Folio auction resultShakespeare First Folio auction result[back to Part 1, Prologue]

For the story behind the poetic mulligan taped opposite my portrait, see Guest Poet Ben Jonson: To the Reader. Try Again. Other posts about the First Folio are linked at the end of Part 1, or can be found by scrolling through posts tagged with First Folio of 1623.

More about my history with Herodotus’s Histories, including another auction, is described in Limerick 15: The Revenge of Queen Tomyris.Shakespeare First Folio auction resultSources

  • • 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.

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VERO NIHIL VERIUS