A Rarity Most Beloved

The Latest Discovery Of A Shakespeare First Folio

By Todd R. Sciore

“To be or not to be”

first-folioWhat was the question running through Professor Eric Rasmussen’s mind after being contacted in late 2014 regarding a possible Shakespeare first folio in Saint-Omer France.  “I get 15 to 20 of these claims a year and I’m always deeply suspicious that people have got a facsimile,” said Rasmussen in a conversation with South Florida Opulence.  “I’d heard that this was a public library in a small town in Northern France; I didn’t realize they had a Gutenberg Bible, so it’s no surprise they turned out to have an authentic Shakespeare first folio – it’s just surprising it went unnoticed for so long. It sounds almost like a fictional narrative: They had this copy in the library, nobody paid much attention to it and lo and behold it turns out to be a $6 million book!”  The Department of English Chair at the University of Nevada, Rasmussen is a widely recognized authority on all things Shakespeare and is the go-to guy for authenticating first folios. He and co-editor Anthony James West have literally written the book on them entitled The Shakespeare First Folios, A Descriptive Catalog.

“I am as poor as Job, my Lord, but not so patient”

Published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, the first folio is considered to be the most reliable adaptation of his works and one of the literary world’s holy grails. For bibliophiles or scholars looking to add an original first folio to their private library, aside from a King Solomon sized bankroll, patience is also key to the hunt as Rasmussen notes, “It looks like just about every six years one comes to light.” Should the folio hit the auction block, rest assured the bidding will be spirited as obtaining a copy is like finding the proverbial golden needle in a haystack.

Shakespeare historian Eric Rasmussen

Shakespeare historian Eric Rasmussen

How to ID an Authentic First Folio
ShowJacketCANS2FBF-1Professor Rasmussen offered some details on what to look for in a true first folio edition, as in this case, a rose by any other name would not smell the same.  As can be expected, the first folio is also one of the literary world’s most copied works – for both honorable and illicit motives alike.

“When photography was first invented, the first books they reproduced by photo-lithography were exact facsimiles of the Shakespeare first folio, and they didn’t put any identifying marks on them…there’s nothing to say ‘this is a photographic reprint.’”  Rasmussen acknowledges this is part of the reason why he gets a number of calls per year from both collectors and libraries about certifying possible original editions. “These books were printed in the mid-nineteenth century, so now they’re moving on 200 years old. They’ve got this old book that looks exactly like a Shakespeare first folio, so it’s understandable,” Rasmussen said.

While the Internet is a valuable research tool, the digital realm cannot replace the expert hands-on examination required to make the proper determination. “It takes a nanosecond to tell nineteenth century wood pulp paper,” Rasmussen pointed out.

“First folios were printed on handmade, watermarked, rag bond paper when paper makers put their hallmark into the paper with their
initials on it. It’s such a distinctive thing.” When asked if there was one common identifying watermark, Rasmussen said the handmade paper process resulted in limited production quantities, and his study of all of the known existing copies revealed several examples with noticeable patterns. “We found 19 different papers, but usually within the same play [in each book] they will be printed on the same paper.”

“What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?”

With only 233 copies known to exist, if you are fortunate enough to obtain an original copy, the best advice is to leave it as close to its original state as possible.  Any restoration should be undertaken only by a highly qualified expert to stabilize it from further deterioration. “The worst thing is when collectors have them re-bound and they think they’re making them look like these incredible treasures,” Rasmussen said. “When you re-bind a book, binders trim it and square up pages and when you trim it, there could be marginal annotations and you’re lopping off half of the word!”  These seemingly innocuous scribblings are like gold to scholars as they may offer insight into Shakespeare’s life and work. Rasmussen has handled more copies than anyone on the planet but is far from being jaded by the experience.  Like an 1804 U.S. silver dollar or an authentic Inverted Jenny postage stamp, one never tires of seeing true rarities. “I’ve seen 230 of these things. I think it must be like a doctor who delivers babies – you’ve seen a lot of them but each one is still a miracle, still beautiful.”

A Rarity Most Beloved