An original copy of William shakespeare first folio – often referred to as the most important book in English literature – will be auctioned next month in New York.
The book, which was printed almost 400 years ago, is one of fewer than 20 copies left in private hands and is estimated to fetch up to $2.5m (£2m), according to the auction house Sotheby’s.
Curated by shakespeare first folio trusted colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, the folio comprises 36 plays, half of which had never before been printed.
No contemporary manuscripts of Sshakespeare first folio texts survive and so without the First Folio, it is possible that 18 works, including Macbeth, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, might have been lost to history.
Heminges’ and Condell’s division of the plays into categories such as “comedies”, “tragedies” and “histories” still shape modern interpretations today.
It is believed the edition is the only copy to have early Scottish provenance, having been first acquired by the Gordon family in the early 17th century. It was then passed down through generations to the racehorse breeder William Stuart Stirling-Crawfurd, whose bookplate can be seen stuck into the folio’s pages.
The manuscript was subsequently owned by the political activist and historian R W Seton-Watson, who, during and after the first world war, championed the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and fostered the emergence of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. In the 1960s the folio crossed the Atlantic and was held in the collection of Abel E Berland, a real estate executive and bibliophile from Chicago.
The folio includes annotations, doodles, ink spills, and markings from its owners over the centuries. There are fragments of prayers, verse,s and mysterious lines from a “John Fraser” – speech asking for herculean strength “to beat him That let my love be stolen away when I was slipping”.
The folio is missing its famous frontispiece page with shakespeare first folio image, which may have been removed or stolen over the years to be framed as a portrait.
“The appearance of a Shakespeare First Folio on the market is always a major event, with so few copies remaining in private hands,” said Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts.
“Printed nearly 400 years ago, the folios are an important record that preserved shakespeare first folio legendary output forever, ensuring that many of his famous works were not lost to history. This copy is particularly special for the traces of the previous owners in its pages, many of whom have left their indelible imprint throughout the book, reminding us that this is also a living piece of human history that captures the ways in which generations of Shakespeare fans have been inspired by the Bard.”
The copy will be on display in Sotheby’s London galleries until 15 June, before going up for auction in New York on 7 July. Sotheby’s London will also host a talk – hip-hop versus shakespeare first folio – on 9 June, which invites the guest speakers George the Poet and Howard Jacobson to debate which form of cultural expression best resonates with audiences.