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A landmark sale to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death

The first four Folios of William Shakespeare’s collected works — including an unrecorded First Folio — are to tour New York and London, where they will be auctioned on 25 May

This spring, Christie’s is to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) with a landmark sale, offering the first four Folios of his collected works in a special four-lot auction in London on 25 May. 

Shakespeare the Four Folios will be offered on 25 May at Christie’s in London
Shakespeare: the Four Folios will be offered on 25 May at Christie’s in London

The sale is to be led by an unrecorded copy of the First Folio: the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, widely considered to be the most important literary publication in the English language. The First Folio contains 36 plays, 18 of which had not previously been printed, and which would otherwise have been lost forever.

Portrait of William Shakespeare from the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeares plays. Copper engraving by Martin Droeshout, 1623. One of the earliest portraits of Shakespeare. Photo © GraphicaArtis  Bridgeman Images

Portrait of William Shakespeare from the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays. Copper engraving by Martin Droeshout, 1623. One of the earliest portraits of Shakespeare. Photo © GraphicaArtis / Bridgeman Images

Widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into every major living language, and are performed more frequently than those of any other playwright. Preserved for posterity in these volumes, his plays define our knowledge of Shakespeare the man, playwright, poet and actor.

The four Folios will tour to New York from 1 to 8 April, before going on public display in London from 20 to 28 April, celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary on 23 April before being exhibited in a pre-sale view in May. The exhibitions will provide viewers with the rare chance to see the complete set of Folios — the earliest editions of the greatest playwright in history.

Margaret Ford, International Head of Books & Manuscripts, comments: ‘Even four centuries after his death, Shakespeare’s plays touch and transform lives and continue to be read and performed from Albania to Zambia. It is deeply moving to handle the first printed record of his collected plays and to be reminded of their impact. Especially exhilarating is bringing a newly recorded copy of the First Folio to public attention, and to be able to offer a set of the Four Folios in this important anniversary year.’

Published in 1623, the present copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio (estimate: £800,000-1,200,000) is one of the most desirable examples remaining in private hands. It was bought in 1800 by renowned book collector Sir George Augustus Shuckburgh-Evelyn (1751-1804) and has been hidden from public view for over two centuries. Even on publication in 1623, the First Folio was considered a privileged acquisition and would have taken pride of place on any bookshelf.

The title page for Hamlet from the First Folio
The title page for Hamlet from the First Folio

Similarly today, ownership of the four Folios is considered the Holy Grail of book collecting. Without the First Folio 18 plays would have been lost forever, including: Macbeth, The Tempest, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, A Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That Ends Well, Twelfth Night, Winter’s Tale, King John, Henry VI part I, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline.

Also from the remarkable Shuckburgh Collection and appearing on the market for the first time in over two centuries are the Third Folio which was published in 1664 (estimate: £300,000-400,000) and the Fourth Folio which was published in 1685 (estimate: £15,000-20,000). The Third Folio includes Pericles for the first time and is beautifully illustrated with Shakespeare’s iconic portrait by English engraver Martin Droeshout. It is rarer than the Second Folio, due to copies being lost in the Great Fire of London (2-5 September, 1666), and the present copy is in very fine condition.

The First Folio was a commercial success and was followed only nine years later by the Second Folio, published in 1632 and providing a page-by-page reprint of the First. The present copy of the Second Folio also contains the iconic portrait of Shakespeare by Droeshout (estimate: £180,000-250,000). The Second Folio is celebrated as containing the first appearance in print of John Milton, whose epitaph on Shakespeare is included.