This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Dubbed "the first universal author" by American literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University Harold Bloom, and described by his contemporary Ben Jonson as "not of an age but for all time," Shakespeare was celebrated in life, and even more so in death. His influence on the literary world has not wavered, being universally studied and analyzed in high school and college classrooms. To celebrate the anniversary, last month Christie's London held a special four item sale of Shakespeare items. We'll get to those results a little further down.
As the greatest writer in the English language, printings and publications of Shakespeare are innumerable. However, material contemporary to Shakespeare's time is far more rare. During his lifetime, Elizabethan playwrights did not prioritize seeing their works in print. Dramas were rarely meant to be read in addition to being performed. Nineteen of the thirty-seven plays in Shakespeare's canon were printed in quarto format, though for over two centuries were mostly considered fraudulent because playwrights were often uninvolved and even unaware of the printings. Modern opinion on the quartos shifted in the late nineteenth century with a reexamination of the quartos, and they are now considered for the most part to be "good" and honest printings not stemming from piracy or plagiarism.
A collection of Shakespeare's work did not appear in print until 1623 with the publishing of Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, also known as the First Folio. The importance of this publication cannot be understated. Eighteen plays appear in print for the first time—material that would have otherwise been lost to history. The plays that appeared here first are: Macbeth, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, All's Well That Ends Well, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale, King John, Henry VI part 1, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline. Three plays now accepted as genuine in whole or in part were not included: Pericles, Two Noble Kinsmen, and Sir Thomas More.
So what items did Christie's auction? It's been 400 years since Shakespeare died, so it was only fitting for them to offer the Four Folios. The Second, Third, and Fourth Folios are successive reprintings stemming from the First Folio, with certain additions. The Second, for example, contains John Milton's first appearance in print via an epitaph on Shakespeare, while the Third and Fourth Folios contain the added play Pericles. The First Folio is considered the most desired item, for obvious reasons, however the four combined make for an extremely impressive set. Christie's also states that the Third Folio is actually the rarest.
The First Folio of Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, edited by John Heminge and Henry Condell, and printed in London in 1623 (third issue), was estimated for £800,000-1,200,000. This previously unknown copy sold for a final price of £1,874,500 and is the second highest realized price for a copy of the First Folio in the Rare Book Transaction History (a different copy sold at Sotheby's in 2006 for £2.8M). The Second Folio carried an estimate of £180,000-250,000 and sold towards the low end of estimates for £194,500. The Third Folio was estimated £300,000-400,000, and being the rarest of the Four, fared better than the Second Folio, going for £362,500. Finally, the Fourth Folio was estimated £15,000-20,000, and on a percentage basis beat its estimate by the largest margin by selling for £47,500, more than double the high estimate. All told, the four items combined for sales of £2,479,000, or $3,621,248.83, surpassing the sale's total high estimate of £1,870,000.
Complete lots for the sale are already available within the Rare Book Transaction History and the auction report on Rare Book Hub is available here. The catalog with lots and images are available directly on the Christie's website here.