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Colby Cosh: Billionaire bardolators rejoice — Shakespeare's 'First Folio' comes up for auction

The auction house Christie’s has announced that it will sell an intact, complete copy of Shakespeare’s “First Folio” this week in New York. The “First Folio,” a compilation of plays made by colleagues of Shakespeare soon after his death, is probably the most totemistic book in any written language. Every known copy is tracked, numbered and catalogued. Most have their own altars in special-collection rooms.

The current count is 235, though many of these copies are incomplete or mangled, or they suffer from what book technicians call “sophistication”: missing leaves have been replaced with facsimiles, or the volume is a Frankenstein’s monster assembled from spare parts. There is one known “First Folio” on Canadian soil, in the University of Toronto’s Fisher Library, which puts us ahead of China and Russia — at least until the Christie’s hammer falls; it wouldn’t be surprising if things were decided by a monster Chinese bid. Canada missed out on the late 19th- and early 20th-century collector mania that saw two-thirds of extant books end up in the United Stares: the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., holds 82. There are not quite 50 copies left in the United Kingdom, although the books still turn up occasionally in big country houses there.

The “First Folio” has its own literature and even its own notation, similar to that used for early bible manuscripts. London has a monument to the editors of the “First Folio,” John Heminges and Henry Condell, but neither man is depicted in granite — only the book is, along with Shakespeare himself. Researchers have unearthed the names and studied the lives of the young compositors who handled the book’s type. The Martin Droeshout engraving that gives us our idea of Shakespeare’s appearance was created for the “First Folio.”

Publishing plays in a large format normally reserved for scholarly and religious texts was an unprecedented move at the time, which is why about four-fifths of plays by other dramatists from Shakespeare’s time are lost. If his friends had not acted, we might remember Shakespeare mostly as a sonneteer. Dons might muse over what his “Macbeth” and his “Julius Caesar,” known only from entries on the Stationers’ Register, must have been like.

The book on sale this week is one of the 56 copies of the “First Folio” considered complete, and its provenance is rock solid. The lot includes an accompanying letter written in 1809 by Edmond Malone (1741-1812), perhaps the greatest of Shakespeare’s editors. Malone had been asked for an assessment of the book, then just beginning its transition to sacredness, and gave it his imprimatur, suggesting a good bookbinder.

Most copies of the book are in institutional hands, and Shakespeare experts have sometimes imagined a future in which private traffic in the book ceases altogether. You might have guessed, as I did on hearing of the auction, that a distressed liberal-arts college was behind the sale. Mills College in Oakland, a pioneering private undergraduate school for women (and now “gender non-binary” persons), announced in December that it was flogging its greatest literary treasure as part of its “MillsNext” deficit-fighting plan . The background is an all-too-familiar story of declining enrolment, increasing use of sessional instructors and labour strife.

How much will the sale of the book yield poor Mills? That it was known to have been handled by Malone is a huge plus, but the provenance is not otherwise spectacular. The owner who consulted Malone was John (Mad Jack) Fuller (1757-1834), a wealthy drunkard and slaver who redeemed himself somewhat in the eyes of history by putting his fortune at the service of the scientist Michael Faraday and the painter J.M.W. Turner.

The record amount for a “First Folio” sale already belongs to Christie’s, who sold one in 2001 for US$6.16 million. The world has changed a lot since then, but anything might happen. If there are any billionaire bardolators among my readers, act fast, and remember your humble correspondent at Christmas.

National Post
Twitter.com/colbycosh

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