Shakespeare’s First Folio Is the Most Expensive Work of Literature Ever Auctioned

A rare edition of the 1623 volume of plays sold at Christie’s for nearly $10 million

Shakespeare's First Folio
A rare edition of Shakespeare's First Folio sold at auction for $10 million. Courtesy of Christie's

A complete copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio—the earliest printed collection of the Bard’s plays—sold this week for a record-breaking $9,978,000. Per a statement from Christie’s, the 1623 volume is now the most expensive work of literature ever auctioned.

Mills College, a private liberal arts school in Oakland, California, placed the text up for sale to help cover budget shortfalls, reported Sam Lefebvre for local news outlet KQED in December 2019. The college received the folio as a gift in 1977.

In the statement, buyer Stephan Loewentheil, a rare book collector based in New York, says he purchased the text to “serve as a centerpiece of a great collection of intellectual achievements of man.” The astronomical price realized on Wednesday was significantly higher than Christie’s pre-sale estimate of $4 to $6 million.

“A complete copy of the First Folio comes up more or less once in a generation,” Margaret Ford, international head of Christie’s Books and Manuscripts division, tells NPR’s Jeevika Verma.

The last time an intact edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio went up for auction was in 2001, when Christie’s sold a copy for the then-record-breaking sum of $6.1 million.

As Oscar Holland points out for CNN, the volumes’ value stems from their rarity: Just 235 of the roughly 750 First Folios published survive today. Of these, 56—the majority of which are owned by institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom—are considered complete. Only six intact copies remain in private hands.

Hamlet Appears in First Folio
The first page of Hamlet as it appears in a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The First Folio’s publication marked the first time that 18 of Shakespeare’s plays—including such classics as Macbeth, Twelfth Night, The Tempest and Julius Caesarwere ever printed. (According to Ford, these works “very likely would not have survived” if not for the First Folio.) The other 18 plays included in the collection of 36 had previously been released in “various good and bad smaller quarto editions,” notes the British Library.

Actors John Heminge and Henry Condell edited and published the First Folio—originally titled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies—in 1623, seven years after their friend and colleague’s death.

“Of course, they would have been involved in acting some of these parts,” says Ford. “But these plays ensured that Shakespeare’s memory was kept alive.”

If the 18 plays first preserved in the folio hadn’t survived, modern readers’ understanding of English might be decidedly different. The Bard was a linguistic pioneer, inventing at least 422 words, according to LitCharts. In Twelfth Night, he used “friend” as a verb for the first time; in Macbeth, he coined such terms as “assassination,” “vaulting” (as in vaulting ambition) and “stealthy.”

Shakespeare’s treatment of meter and line was similarly revolutionary. He often switched between iambic pentameter—a soft beat followed by five strong ones—and prose in order to convey information about characters in his plays. Nobles, for instance, tend to speak in iambic pentameter, while commoners speak in prose. This technique helped the Bard appeal to both the upper and lower classes, ensuring his work resonated with a broad audience.

Speaking with CNN, Loewentheil says, “[The First Folio] is the greatest work in the English language, certainly the greatest work of theater, so it's something that anyone who loves intellectualism has to consider a divine object.”

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