LONDON — Led by an unrecorded first folio at Christie’s, the firm’s sale of the William Shakespeare’s first four folios on May 25, commemorating 400 years since the playwrights’ death (1564–1616) totaled $3.6 million. The folios were offered in a four-lot auction celebrating the Shakespeare anniversary. The sale was led by an unrecorded copy of the first folio, which was bid to $2,714,276. This first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, widely considered the most important literary publication in the English language, contains 36 plays, 18 of which had not previously been printed and would have otherwise been lost forever.
The plays of Shakespeare, preserved for posterity in these volumes, define our knowledge of Shakespeare the man, the playwright, the poet and the actor.
Published in 1623, the copy of Shakespeare’s first folio is one of the most desirable examples remaining in private hands. It was bought in 1800 by renowned book collector Sir George Augustus Shuckburgh-Evelyn (1751–1804) and had been hidden from public view for more than two centuries. Even on publication in 1623, the first folio was considered a privileged acquisition and would have taken pride of place on any bookshelf. Similarly today, ownership of the four folios is considered the Holy Grail of book collecting. Without the first folio 18 plays would have been lost forever, including Macbeth, The Tempest, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, A Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That Ends Well, Twelfth Night, Winter’s Tale, King John, Henry VI part I, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline.
Also from the Shuckburgh collection and appearing on the market for the first time in more than two centuries are the third folio, which was published in 1664, realized $524,900, and the fourth folio, which was published in 1685, took $68,780. The third folio includes Pericles for the first time and is illustrated with Shakespeare’s iconic portrait by English engraver Martin Droeshout. It is rarer than the second folio, due to copies being lost in the Great Fire of London (September 2–5, 1666).
The first folio was a commercial success and was followed only nine years later by the second folio, published in 1632 and providing a page-by-page reprint of the first. The copy of the second folio also contains the iconic portrait of Shakespeare by Droeshout and it finished at $281,636. The second folio is celebrated as containing the first appearance in print of John Milton, whose epitaph on Shakespeare is included.
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For information, +44 20 7839 9060 or www.christies.com.