A spare £5 million helps if you want to make it to book-collecting heaven

By William Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 03/04/06):

ONE OF THE most moving monuments in London stands at the northeast corner of St James’s Square. There are always flowers at its foot. They are placed in memory of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, who was killed by a shot from the Libyan Embassy on April 17, 1984. The police themselves keep her memory green.

In my memory, the event is inextricably associated with William Shakespeare. At the time, I was working as an antiquarian bookseller in Pall Mall, just around the corner from St James’s Square. We had a distinguished 82-year-old American Shakespearean scholar in our shop that day, who had worked for the Folger Library in Washington. He was there to authenticate an excellent though slightly imperfect copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare, 1623, which my colleague, Christopher Edwards, had sold to the Dallas public library. We heard the police bustling about to close off Pall Mall and St James’s Square itself. We heard a shot or shots. For an hour or so, the scholar was unable to leave, though he had finished his collation of the book.

For a collector of English literature, the Shakespeare First Folio, which is the first collected edition of the plays, is the summit of any library, however grand. For the antiquarian bookseller, correspondingly, the First Folio is the summit of his professional life. It was only in his last years of collecting that Sir Paul Getty, that most generous-hearted collector, acquired his First Folio. Most booksellers nowadays go through a lifetime without ever having a copy in stock. I wish the Dallas public library well, but I still envy them the copy that we sold them in 1984.

Good copies of the First Folio are very rare. Sotheby’s now have an excellent copy, which hardly anyone knew about; it may be the last fine copy on the market for years to come. They will be selling it on July 13.

This copy comes from Dr Williams’s Library, which is a centre of Dissenting studies with important holdings of leading Nonconformists such as Isaac Watts, the hymn writer who wrote O God our help in ages past, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, and George Eliot, the great novelist. Dr Williams’s Library feels that it has to sell its First Folio to fund its major collections and reduce its insurance costs. It is always a matter of regret when libraries of this quality feel they should sell their greatest possessions.

How much will the Dr Williams’s Folio fetch? I think it will be a lot. Collectors judge value by importance, condition, the price record, rarity and provenance. Apart possibly from the Gutenberg Bible, 1449, which is the first European printed book, the First Folio would be regarded by most collectors as the most important cultural icon among books. That would be as true in Japan as in England or the United States.

The condition in this case is very good. Unfortunately, most surviving copies were rebound in the 19th century, when wealthy collectors preferred elaborate Victorian goatskin bindings to decent 17th or 18th-century calf. Modern fashion has swung the other way. Dr Williams’s copy is a clean, tall copy in an attractive, but plain, mid-17th-century calf binding, exactly what modern taste would prefer, despite an early rebacking.

The most recent price record for a comparable copy was $5,600,000, sold by Christie’s in New York in 2001. That would now convert to £3,200,000, which alone would justify Sotheby’s current estimate of £2.5 million to £3.5 million. In the past five years, the value of the great iconic books has been rising sharply. I may be mistaken, but, if I were still an antiquarian bookseller, I would advise a client that he would have little chance of buying the Dr Williams Folio for less than £5 million, a 50 per cent rise on five years ago.

The price might go even higher if the copy did not lack the leaf of verses before the title, which has been replaced in 19th-century facsimile. In a lesser book or a commoner book, this might matter even more. First Folios tend to lack that leaf and often lack the much more important Droeshout portrait as well. That was even true of copies appearing at auction early in the 19th century and it’s true of many of the 79 copies held by the Folger Library, which also has 58 copies of the second Folio, 24 of the third and 36 of the fourth.

The extraordinary Folger collection helped to make the First Folio into a genuinely rare book. Originally, 750 are said to have been printed and about a third of them survive. Normally the survival of 250 copies would make any other book of that period a relatively common object. There are only about 200 great institutional libraries in the world who ought to have a First Folio, almost as a symbol of their status.

Henry Clay Folger, who died in 1930, made his fortune in Standard Oil; he was an obsessive collector of Shakespeare, as was his wife. Folger’s stock of folios and the number of copies that are imperfect have made the First Folio, when perfect or nearly perfect and in good condition, into a rare book on the market.

It is also relatively rare for First Folios to have a provenance which can be traced back so close to the original publication. The Rev Daniel Williams, the library’s founder, bought the library of Dr William Bates (1625-1699) and it is thought that this Folio probably came from the Bates collection, which was rich in English literature. If so, that would take the provenance back to a collector born only two years after the First Folio was published.

Since 2001 the number of dollar billionaires in the world has doubled. No doubt there are now 1,000 of them and several thousand half-billionaires, worth $500 million each. Even for a half-billionaire, £5 million is less than 2 per cent of his or her net worth. There are thousands of people who could afford to buy a First Folio out of income. Yet this is the world’s greatest icon of literature.