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First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays up for auction

17th-century calf bound compendium of plays likely to sell for $4-6 million
/ Source: The Associated Press

A rare complete copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays will go on sale in London on July 13, Sotheby's auction house said Thursday.

The complete compendium of 36 plays, being sold by the trustees of Dr. Williams' Library in London, is still in its 17th-century calf binding, Sotheby's said. The auctioneer expected the book to sell for as much as $6.1 million — what a comparable copy of the 900-page First Folio fetched in a 2001 sale at Christie's in New York.

Some 750 copies of the First Folio were printed, and about a third survived, though most are incomplete, Sotheby's said.

The small printing in 1623 was the first for 18 of Shakespeare's plays. Without the book, they might have been lost.

"If they (the Folios) weren't printed, we wouldn't have 'Macbeth' or 'Twelfth Night,' and we wouldn't know the full range of Shakespeare's work," said Kate McLuskie, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham.

During his lifetime, Shakespeare made no effort to have his plays published and it was left to two managers in the Bard's acting company to preserve the works.

Many of the Folios include handwritten comments by readers, McLuskie said, and this "tells us what people knew about Shakespeare and his reputation at the time. It is invaluable."

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And while the Folio Sotheby's is selling is not unique — there are about 40 complete Folios still in existence — it is rare that a copy of the book is made available to private collectors.

Only one other copy of the Folio, belonging to the estate of late philanthropist and book collector Paul Getty, remains in private ownership, Sotheby's said. Another copy of the book, known as the Houghton copy, was sold in 1980 and is held at Japan's Meisei University.

Dr. Williams' Library, in Gordon Square in central London, was established in the early 18th century under the will of Daniel Williams, a government minister.

"The library has been proud to own this remarkable copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, but its sale will secure the finances of the library and safeguard our important historic collections of manuscripts and printed books for future generations," said David Wykes, the library's director.