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At Sotheby's English Literature and History sale on July 13, two interested parties in the room contested the Dr Williams' Library copy of the 1623 compendium of the Bard's plays. With no interest on the phone, it sold at low estimate to London dealers Simon Finch Rare Books, who are thought to have been buying for a client.

Sotheby's specialist-in-charge Peter Selley said: "We are delighted with the price achieved for the First Folio. It has been a great pleasure to have handled the sale of this remarkable and special copy."

However, although £2.5m is clearly a large sum for anyone to pay for a book, this particular copy of the seminal work was not only unusually complete, but also had a 17th century binding that may well have been contemporaneous. Having been part of Dr Williams' library since at least 1716, it was also the longest-owned copy of the First Folio by a public library anywhere in the world.

The closest comparable copy - in terms of completeness and condition - sold at auction took $5.6m (then £3.73m) hammer at Christie's New York in October 2001. In 2003, Sir Paul Getty is also thought to have paid £3.5m for the First Folio owned by Oriel College, Oxford.

Although the figure paid for the Dr Williams' Library copy is the second highest price for a First Folio seen at auction, many had been hoping that it might surpass its £2.5m-£3.5m estimate. In any case, the money raised from the sale of the book will significantly help the library by securing its finances and safeguarding their other important historic collections.

The First Folio contains 36 plays, 18 of which might have been lost had it not been produced seven years after Shakespeare's death by the playwright's close companions.

By Alex Capon