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Sotheby’s To Bring A Most Rare Shakespeare First Folio Under The Hammer In New York On July 21

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We forget the monumental literary, social and philosophical debt that we owe two of Shakespeare’s very closest actors, colleagues, friends and fellow Globe Theatre shareholders John Heminges and Henry Condell, who, seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, collected 36 plays into what’s known as the First Folio. Suffice it to say that the world’s literary canon would be greatly diminished if there were no Macbeth, no As You Like It, no Taming of the Shrew, no Tempest, no Winter’s Tale, no Comedy of Errors, no Henry VI, and no Twelfth Night, to name just eight of the eighteen plays Heminges and Condell saved by assembling them in this form.

This particular edition was snapped up quite early after its printing 399 years ago and made its way to Scotland, where it was owned for generations by the Gordon family, who annotated it with their names, according to Sotheby’s Rare Books Department, which will stage the Folio’s auction in New York on July 21. Sotheby’s has assayed an estimate of $1.5-$2.5 million, with, in the eyes of many, the expectation that the bidding will go higher.

Anything can happen as the auctioneer assumes the lectern and the paddles fly up, but it’s important to note that there are not quite twenty First Folios in private hands. Now, with this one coming under the hammer, there stands a better-than- decent chance of there being one less of those. Put another way, with First Folios already in sterling institutional hands of the British Library, the New York Public Library and the Folger, among others around the globe, we can expect spirited institutional participation on July 21.

One very fine aspect of this First Folio is that it’s a lived-with object, a beloved and much visited thing by its first family of owners, the Gordons, and their heirs and assigns. Several of them signed it. For the first couple of hundred years anyway, nobody seemed to have a thought of selling the thing — it was treated as part of the family furniture. Sotheby’s Rare Books experts have determined doodles and notes from at least five hands. One notable Scots owner, Wiliam Stuart Stirling Crawfurd, slapped his book plate in the thing. Comically, and quite aptly given the Folio’s author, one of the handwritten annotations is in effect a supplicant’s prayer to Shakespeare — from one “John Frasere” — asking for strength to beat up the fellow who allowed Frasere’s ladylove to be “stolen” while he, Frasere, was asleep. Ah, the workings of the heart. Talk about Shakespeare’s subject matter.

To the extent that the global rare books market, or any high-end art market, is affected by current events, it’s safe to say that this is a delicate moment in global finance. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine is a massive engine of inflation and that uncertainty, coupled with the many deep, ongoing deleterious effects of the pandemic, are prime drivers of the general tightening of money. Money is held now rather than splashed out.

Pitted against all that on July 21: The timeless, almost incalculable value of Shakespeare. One could crudely draw the line to posit that July 21 will be Shakespeare’s showdown with neo-Soviet strongman Vladimir Putin, but that, given Shakespeare’s performance over the last 406 years since his death, would undersell the Bard.

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