Diseases Desperate Growne

Banner - Title of Hamlet in the First Folio, page 152

· 18 March 2020 ·
[A First Folio was to be auctioned in New York next month, but the plans have changed]


Wouldn’t you know it, only four days ago I gave this auction up for dead, and said so right here. Happy to receive word from Christie’s that my (legible) signature on the death certificate was premature. I’m a better poet than coroner.

Tudor money pot - used to collect coins at public theatres - First Folio auction coronavirusThe Exceptional Sale
• Wednesday, 14 Oct 2020
• New York
• 10:00 am (local time)

Details and photos are at the link. I will be posting a Prologue on the 13th, with an Epilogue to follow after the sale. If your money pot holds six or eight spare millions, register to bid and have a go at the old book. Let me know if you win.

Original post, 18 March

When I began writing this post in January, an auction at Christie’s named The Exceptional Sale, headlined by a 1623 First Folio edition of my plays, was scheduled for 24 April (2020) in New York, New York. Two days ago (16 March) as I sat at my screen checking what I was typing, Christie’s started taking pages down, pulling them right out from under me. I’ve never seen that happen in real-time before.

Original Christie's listing for FF - Xed out

The sale’s URL now redirects to a list of Precautionary closures and sale postponements. The Exceptional Sale itself is not listed at all. I enquired of the auction house and received a courteous reply that while this sale “has not explicitly been postponed yet, it is expected that all March and April dates will be moved”. I had already snagged the link to the First Folio’s description, so you can still look at the page as long as they don’t pull it. I’ll update my post or write another one when I learn anything new.

Until the auction takes place, the book will wait for (most of) us to become social creatures again. It has survived for four centuries, demonstrating its ability to overcome its own assortment of existential threats. So far.

Willy appears concerned about what might happen next.

Mills College First Folio exterior binding

Only five complete copies of the First Folio remain in private hands, and on 24 April Christie’s will offer the first complete copy to come on the market in almost two decades. It will be auctioned during Classic Week in New York, and is being sold on behalf of Mills College in Oakland, California.(from the description)

Mills College is an independent liberal arts college for women and gender-nonbinary students, in the San Francisco area. Mills finds itself in parlous financial straits – a Mozart manuscript is also to be sold. If money problems aren’t stressful enough, the campus is currently under a shelter-in-place quarantine order, like much of the metropolis surrounding it.

This First Folio was given to Mills in 1977 by alumna Mary Louise O’Brien, a former college trustee and the daughter of an English professor there. Christie’s estimates the Folio to sell between $4,000,000 and $6,000,000, but all it takes is two deep pockets who both covet, and boom, even your little £6000 Italian Herodotus goes for £38,000. What then for a substantially complete, attractive copy of the First Folio, nearly twenty years after the last good one on the market sold for $6,166,000? Maybe I should re-write Limerick 15, change the £ to $, and add lots of zeros. I have yet to resolve the matter of my cut.

Of course I’d like this Folio to end up where folks have the opportunity to see it and engage with it as directly as prudence permits. I spent a couple of hours with one a few years ago, with, alas, glass between us. Even so. I may know its words like the back of my hand, and digitised First Folios are one of the internet’s best gifts, but there’s no substitute for putting your nose as close to the book as they’ll let you, to get a sense of its size, the density of the type on those long pages, its physicality.

Realistically, we may not learn who comes out the winner of the eventual auction, if it includes anonymous bidders (handy word, Anonymous). My fervent plea to any gods left in heaven is that the price is beyond the Folger’s budget if not also beyond their interest, since Henry no longer hoards Folios himself. My entreaty has nothing to do with their elemental wrengthwrength n. (uncountable) The state or condition of being wrong; wrongness; wrongfulness. See Stratfordian. about me. The Folger Shakespeare Library already entombs eighty-two of the 235 known First Folios within their mausoleum in America’s capital. That is far more than enough in one place, no matter who your Shake-Speare is.

So if you happen to have very rich, very old relatives who bequeath you upwards of eight million dollars when the bug gets them in the next couple of months, I have a suggestion for something you might do with the cash.

And if you think my joking shows a lack of feeling, you’re not only wrong, you’re missing the point. Unlike nearly everyone alive, I’ve been through pandemic plagues before. The only thing substantially different about this one has been the speed of its transmission over distance, aided by aeroplanes and automobiles. The rest is details, variations in symptoms and communicability and mortality rates. A plague is a plague no matter what bug causes it. Whether the menace is the Black Death or the Tudor Sweat or COVID-19, gallows humour is a time-tested defence mechanism that helps keep real peril from overwhelming us with more worry than our minds and hearts can handle. I may be a posthumous poet but I have people I care about who are already closely threatened by this thing, just like almost everyone else has, or will have soon enough.

FINIS comes to us all

More about the First Folio

  • Image Sources
  • • Photos of the Mills College First Folio come from the image gallery included in the lot description at christies.com.

Don’t pay too much attention to the details in the description. They strike the popular chords and I’ve read worse, but it’s no more than conventional advertising copy. These folks are merchants who stand to earn a handsome commission based on the book’s sale price. They aren’t in the get-the-correct-Shakespeare business.