Mar 29, 2023
A Collection of Rare Shakespeare Folios Is on Sale for $10.5 Million
(Bloomberg) -- A collection of five very rare editions of William Shakespeare’s works will be offered at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair (April 27-30) with an overall asking price of $10.5 million if purchased as a group.
The collection includes each of Shakespeare’s four folios, along with a first edition of his collected poems. “The 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio being produced and printed has been coming at us for a few years, and I’ve been trying to work out a way of how to do it,” says Pom Harrington, the owner of the rare book dealer Peter Harrington in London, which is selling the group. “The Four Folios establish Shakespeare as being the king of literature.” Before coming to New York, the books will be on view in Harrington’s Mayfair store by private appointment.
The First Folio
The books are being promoted as a package but also can be sold individually.
Most expensive—and most important—is the First Folio, a compilation of 36 out of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, which was published in 1623, seven years after the bard’s death. The First Folio is prized as a record of 18 plays that otherwise might have been lost forever: It’s thought that none of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts have survived, and only 17 of his plays were printed during his lifetime (one was printed after his death), meaning that without the First Folio, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest might have been lost forever, according to the British Library.
Harrington’s First Folio first came onto the public market in about 1950 and was owned by Frederick Fermor-Hesketh, 2nd Baron Hesketh. Trustees of his will sold it decades after his death; it was acquired by its current owner 13 years ago, according to Harrington. “We presume it was sitting in an old country house,” Harrington says, noting that it lacks four of the eight preliminary leaves. “Every copy varies,” says Harrington. “They’ve all got misprints, and the vast majority have something missing.”
The standalone price of Harrington’s First Folio is $7.5 million.
Today, 232 copies of the First Folio are known to exist: A 2012 census cataloged every one. All but 27 of these copies, Harrington says, reside in institutional collections, meaning that their presence on the market is a relatively rare occurrence. In 2020, another copy of the First Folio came up at Christie’s with a high estimate of $6 million and sold for just under $10 million. In doing so, it set a world record for any work of literature at auction.
The Other Folios
After the commercial success of the First Folio, the Second Folio was published in 1632 and included, according to Harrington, some 1,700 changes to the first. “It was designed to be a copy of the First Folio, so it was reset,” he says. “This copy is complete, and it’s in a very similar binding, and that tends to be what most collectors at this range satisfy themselves with, because they either don’t have the opportunity to buy the First Folio, or it’s way out of their budget.” Harrington sold the work to its current, London-based owner 20 years ago; before that it was in the collection of a California collector. This copy is on sale for $550,000.
The Third Folio, priced at $1.5 million, “is actually the rarest of them all,” Harrington says. It was initially published in 1663, “and only 27 extant copies are known, of which only three are held privately,” he explains. For years, it was in the possession of the noted bibliophile Mary Hyde Eccles, who died in 2003; its current owner acquired it in 2004. And the Fourth Folio, published in 1685, was the last of the 17th-century Shakespeare editions and “is comparatively easy to get,” Harrington says. As such, it’s priced at a relatively modest $225,000. It’s been in Harrington’s own collection for more than a year; before that, he says, “it went from bookseller to bookseller, with a nice north of England provenance.”
The copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s Poems is also extremely rare, according to Harrington, who says there are about 65 copies extant and only five in private hands. The binding, he says, seems to be contemporary to its printing. “This is the only edition of the poems published in the 17th century,” he says. “It’s got a very sweet provenance—there’s an inscription from an Englishman in Rome in 1664. It was clearly in Italy for some centuries.” Eventually it made its way to London, where Harrington says an American collector bought it in 2006 and has held onto it ever since. This copy is on sale for $750,000.
All of the works are in very good condition, the product of “curation and good fortune,” Harrington says. By that, he continues, he had the choice of selling a few different examples of the folios and chose what he considered to be the best, hoping the owners would go along with it. “I approached the [folios’] owners and sweet-talked them into letting me play,” he says. “They seem to have enjoyed the process.”
The result, he concludes, is a triumph. “Normally, I’d be making all kinds of excuses about condition, but this time I don’t have to,” he says. “It’s great.”
Given Shakespeare’s worldwide fame, along with the folios’ condition, provenance and historic import, Harrington says that even though some or all of the folios could be acquired by a library (“there are no copies [of the First Folio] in the Middle East, and it’s only a matter of time before one of their libraries will want a copy”), he speculates that the group will end up with a private collector.
“This is a trophy piece,” he says. “And you mention it to old-school book collectors and they just go, ‘Oh, my God.’”
(Update to clarify books can be purchased individually)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.