Stephan Loewentheil
Stephan Loewentheil in his Brooklyn office, holding another copy of the First Folio which he handled previously.

Estimated at $4m-6m, the copy drew strenuous competition on October 14 from three phone bidders. After a six-minute bidding battle it was knocked down to US book dealer Stephan Loewentheil at $8.4m (£6.46m), a sum that surpassed the previous auction high of $6.16m/£3.73m (including premium) for a First Folio sold in the same saleroom in October 2001.

The price including buyer’s premium was $9.98m (£7.65m).

Other top prices for the 1623 collected edition of the Bard’s plays include the £3.5m paid by Paul Getty for a copy sold by Oriel College, Oxford in a deal brokered by Maggs Brothers in 2003, as well as the £2.5m hammer price for the First Folio from Dr Williams’ Library sold at Sotheby’s in July 2006.

Christie’s claimed the latest price was also a record for “any work of literature”. While technically true, the record for any printed book remains the $12.5m (£8.1m) for the Bay Psalm Book – the first book printed in the US which was of a religious nature rather than ‘literature’ – that sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2013. A complete set of John James Audubon’s (1785-1851) four volume Birds of America also fetched $10.25m (£6.5m) at Christie’s in London in 2010.

The copy was originally due to appear in a Christie’s auction in April but was held back until the autumn due to the postponements caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

'A moment to seize'

Loewentheil, whose 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop in Brooklyn, New York, bid £1.5m for another First Folio at Sotheby’s in 2010, told ATG: “This is the fifth and best copy that we have handled. I suspect that is more than any dealer now active. The last complete copy in the market appeared in 2001, but with fewer and fewer opportunities to acquire examples of this quality, and with increasing numbers of buyers entering the book market at the high end, this was a moment to seize.”

He said the book is destined for “a private collection of books and manuscripts representing humankind’s greatest achievements”, although he noted “the long-term historical tendency, one that continues to reduce the supply in the market, is for books of this importance to find their way into institutions”.

Shakespeare’s First Folio

The copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio that sold for a record $8.4m (£6.46m) at Christie’s New York.

The copy at Christie's was consigned by Mills College in Oakland, California – the oldest undergraduate college for women in the western US, founded in 1852. The First Folio had come to the US in 1961 when it was sold by London dealership Bernard Quaritch to the Washington, DC-based real estate investor Allan I Bluestein.

Its first recorded owner was John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller (1757-1834), the wealthy Sussex property owner, MP and patron of JMW Turner. Fuller had shown this First Folio to the great Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone and included in the Christie’s lot was an autograph letter dated 1809 where Malone attested to the ‘cleanness’ and authenticity of this copy.

Original leaves

Widely considered the most important literary publication in the English language, the First Folio contains 36 plays, 18 of which may have otherwise been lost to history.

With approximately 900 leaves, the collected works of Shakespeare appeared in bookshops in late 1623 with unbound copies priced at 15 shillings and bound copies offered for £1 – equivalent to three months’ wages for a skilled tradesman.

The famous engraving by Martin Droeshout provided the title-page while an introductory poem by fellow playwright Ben Jonson implied that it was a good likeness.

The total edition is believed to have run to about 750 copies of which 235 are known to have survived. Over half are now in US institutions, including the Folger Shakespeare Library which has 82. Thirty-six copies remain in the UK.

The key to the value of a First Folio is the number of original leaves. Most copies of the 1623 edition of the Bard’s collected plays have missing leaves with replacements supplied from either ‘breakers’ (other First Folios which got broken-up), later editions or facsimiles. Only 56 copies are deemed original and complete and only five of those, including the current copy, remain in private hands.

Shakespeare's First Folio

The First Folio at Christie’s was bound in London c.1810 apparently by Thomas Gosden.

First Folio in Numbers

750: the number of copies believed to have been printed in 1623

235: the number known to have survived

900: the number of leaves in the First Folio

56: the number of copies deemed copies are deemed complete (ie retaining all their original leaves)

5: the number of complete copies remaining in private hands

Evolving market

The First Folio came about thanks to Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who collaborated after the writer’s death to compile an authoritative edition of his complete works.

Among the works that may otherwise have been lost to history were Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure and Julius Caesar. Heminge and Condell were also the first to organise the Bard’s plays into the categories of comedies, tragedies and histories.

Although the way it was produced, printed and priced made it an expensive acquisition at the time, the edition was seemingly a commercial success as a Second Folio followed less than a decade later.

Macbeth in Shakespeare's First Folio

‘William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies', often referred to as the ‘First Folio’, featured 36 of the Bard’s plays, including ‘The Tragedie of Macbeth’.

By the late 18th century, First Folios had clearly become highly sought after by collectors and antiquarians. According to the Christie’s catalogue, they were changing hands in the 1790s for an average price of £30; rising to £60 in the first half of the 19th century and £290 in the second half.

As prices continued to rise across the 20th century with collectors like Henry Clay Folger of New York, chairman of Standard Oil, driving prices upwards, some booksellers and collectors attempted to assemble ‘new’ copies from miscellaneous collections of single leaves.

The First Folio market now remains primarily the preserve of US collectors and institutions. Only five copies are known outside the US, the UK, Europe and Japan. None are recorded in Russia, Latin America or in mainland Asia.

£1 = $1.3