Rare fragment of Shakespeare’s first folio at auction

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On October 29, 2021, a fragment – 13 pages, comprising the whole of Henri IV Part one – Shakespeare’s First Folio will be auctioned. Its value is estimated to be between $ 50,000 and $ 100,000 and auctions will start at $ 26,000. Fred Holabird, president of the Holabird Western Americana Collections auction house, says it is “invaluable.” So what is this fragment, and why is it so valuable?

Shakespeare’s first folio was the first printed collection of his work. It was compiled and published in 1623, seven years after his death, by John Heminges and Henry Condell, actors and friends of the Bard. Its proper name is Comedies, Stories and Tragedies by Mr. William Shakespeare and it contained 36 plays, only half of which had previously been published in quartos (mostly pamphlets). At that time, it was common for plays not to be available in print form. Experts estimate that 750 copies of the first folio were made, and that around 235 still exist (56 of them are complete). These belong to libraries, universities, museums and private collectors. The Folger Shakespeare Library has the largest collection in the world, with 82 copies.

Shakespeare’s Second Folio (and the Third Folio and the Fourth Folio) are essentially reprints of the First Folio. Each edition has slight changes to the text that make them identifiable.

Last year, a rare full copy became the most expensive book ever sold, when Mills College auctioned it off for just under $ 10 million. The buyer, rare book collector Stephan Loewentheil, said: “The first folio is the largest collection of plays ever published and revered around the world. It is an honor to purchase one of the rare complete copies of this period volume. Complete copies go on sale very rarely – the previous one sold in 2001 for over $ 6 million.

The fragment in question was bounced back, most likely by Sangorski & Sutcliffe in London for the previous owner, Dr Otto Orrin Fisher, whose name is inscribed in the binding. Dr Fisher, who died in 1961, had a collection of rare books and manuscripts of over 80,000 individual works. In 1949, he donated four complete copies of the Premier Folio to his alma mater, the University of Miami. It is believed that many fragments were in his collection at the time of his death.

The fragment was authenticated last month by Dr Eric Rasmussen, University of Nevada, Reno, professor and head of the Department of English and Philosophy, world-renowned Shakespearean scholar and one of the leading experts on Shakespeare’s early folios. Among other accomplishments and publications, Dr Rasmussen edited Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalog.

According to Holabird’s auction listing, Henry IV was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and the printed copies would have been neat and valuable – a fact that may have contributed to the fragment’s longevity in 17th century survival; now, of course, all known shards are supported, but at the time they probably wouldn’t have been considered valuable.

The condition of the fragment is described as “very good”, with some expected wear including small chips and tears, and a missing double-sided page. Missing pages are normal and expected, Dr. Rasmussen says, and even full copies of the first folio can be missing up to 40% of the original 900 pages.

The auction will take place on Friday. You can view the scanned pages of Shakespeare’s first folio online.

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