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Published in 1623, the example of Shakespeare’s First Folio was bought in c.1800 by Sir George Augustus Shuckburgh-Evelyn (1751-1804). It has not been seen in public since it was acquired by the renowned book collector and has been consigned by a descendant.

Christie’s international head of books and manuscripts Margaret Ford told ATG that it had “sat on same shelf for 200 years”.

“The family were aware of it and knew what it was, but they never crowed about it. This copy was unknown to academics until last week.”

The discovery means that the number of First Folios known to exist has now risen to 233. The majority of copies are in institutions with 82 in Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.

Housed in a later 18th century binding, Ford said that this version was in good condition with all its the original leaves retained apart from the preliminaries including the title page and frontispiece with the engraving of The Bard’s image by Martin Droeshout and Ben Jonson’s dedication.

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

A number of copies have been sold in the last 20 years including an example which took $6.16m (£3.73m) including premium at Christie's New York in October 2001 – a sum that still holds the auction record for a First Folio.

Two examples sold at Sotheby’s in the last decade were the copy from the collection of Frederick 2nd Lord Hesketh that took a premium-inclusive £1.5m in December 2010 and the Dr Williams' Library copy, which made £2.5m hammer in July 2006.

Known private sales include a First Folio owned by Oriel College, Oxford that was sold to the late Sir Paul Getty for a rumoured £3.5m in 2003.

The current First Folio will be offered at Christie’s on May 25.

Later Folios

The Christie’s sale will also feature copies of Shakespeare’s second, third and fourth folios. The latter two volumes come from the same Shuckburgh collection as the First Folio.

The Third Folio, which was published in 1664, is a rarer book than the Second Folio in part due to copies being lost in the Great Fire of London (two years after its publication). The copy at Christie’s is in “extremely good condition” according to Ford and, also in an 18th century binding, it is estimated at £300,000-400,000.

The Fourth Folio, which comes from the same source and was published in 1685, is estimated at £15,000-20,000.

Meanwhile, the copy of the Second Folio at the Christie’s sale comes from a separate overseas vendor. Published in 1632, this edition was effectively a page-by-page reprint of the First Folio although it also included the first appearance in print of John Milton, whose epitaph on Shakespeare is included. At the May 25 auction, the copy on offer is estimated at £180,000-250,000.