Shakespeare First Folio Expected to be Auctioned for $2.5m

One of only 20 copies left of Shakespeare’s first collection of plays is set to be auctioned in New York next month. Read all about it here!

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It’s pretty hard to find someone who doesn’t know Shakespeare. In fact, the Bard’s plays are some of the most widely read works of all time, and their influence throughout the last 400 years is easy to see. But did you know that without the publication of the First Folio, his collected works, after his death, some of his plays would have been lost to history? Today, only 20 copies of the original Folio are still around, and one of them is going up for auction next month. The book is expected to sell for about $2.5 million. Here’s everything you need to know about this rare and historical book!

Shakespeare’s Plays Weren’t Published Until After His Death

Shakespeare first folio
IMAGE VIA SHAKESPEARE BIRTHPLACE TRUST

In fact, almost no playwrights’ plays were published while they were still alive in the 1600s. No original manuscripts of Shakespeare plays are still around; not even the actors in the plays would have gotten the full script, just their parts and the lines right before and after them. So without two of Shakespeare’s friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, putting the First Folio together, 18 of the 36 plays wouldn’t be around today. Those include Macbeth, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, along with many others.

“Printed nearly 400 years ago, the folios are an important record that preserved Shakespeare’s legendary output forever, ensuring that many of his famous works were not lost to history”, Richard Austin, the head of global books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s who will be overseeing the auction, told the Guardian. The Folio was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

The First Folio Did a Lot First

shakespeare first folio
IMAGE VIA THE BRITISH LIBRARY

In addition to saving half of all the plays, the Folio did a lot to shape the way we read Shakespeare today. It was the first to establish 36 plays as the official complete collection. The front page with a picture of Shakespeare is famous, as the portrait is the most common image of the playwright today. Additionally, Heminges and Condell were the first to separate the plays into “comedies”, “histories”, and “tragedies”, categories we still use today.

This Folio Has an Interesting History

IMAGE VIA ABAA

The copy going up for auction next month has had a full life in the 400 years since it was published. It’s the only surviving copy from Scotland, originally belonging to the Gordon family for generations. After that, it was sold to R.W. Seton-Watson, an activist in the early 1900s that supported the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I. Finally, it ended up in America in the 1960s, joining the private collection of real estate agent Abel E. Berland in Chicago. Each of these owners added their own touch to the book, with annotations and other markings among the pages. The front page with the image of Shakespeare was also removed at some point.

Austin sees this as especially interesting for buyers. “This copy is particularly special for the traces of the previous owners in its pages, many of whom have left their indelible imprint throughout the book,” he stated, “reminding us that this is also a living piece of human history that captures the ways in which generations of Shakespeare fans have been inspired by the Bard.”

The Auction Will Be Held in New York Next Month

Shakespeare first folio
IMAGE VIA FINEBOOKS

The Folio copy is on display now, at the art broker Sotheby’s galleries in London through Wednesday, June 15th. The auction is set to take place in New York City on July 21st. Sotheby’s estimates that the Folio will sell for around $2.5 million. Copies of the Folio are incredibly rare and often sell for millions of dollars, with one even sold at almost $10 million in 2020. The $2.5 million is just a prediction, and until the auction goes forward next month, we won’t know for sure how much it will sell for. However much the Folio goes for at the auction, it’s clear that this book is a unique piece of literary history and is, in some ways at least, priceless.

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FEATURED IMAGE VIA FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY