One of English literature’s most valuable works — a First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays — has been sold by Oxford University’s Oriel College for an estimated £3.5 million to pay for building repairs and textbooks.
The book, which was printed in 1623 and has been kept in the college’s library for over two centuries, was bought by Sir Paul Getty, the philanthropist, in a private deal in New York.
Sir Paul, who bought the book in a deal brokered by Maggs Brothers, an antiquarian book sellers, said that he had purchased the work to accompany several other Shakespeare folios that he already possesses.
“I had had, for some years, the Second, Third and Fourth Folios in their original bindings — the First, of course, was one of the towering books in English antiquarian bookhunting — and I was thrilled to get it,” he said.
Some academics at the university have expressed concern at the sale, warning that it sets an unfortunate precedent which could lead to other literary classics being sold to meet short-term funding gaps.
Others, however, have spoken of their relief that the First Folio — a work regarded alongside the King James version of the Bible as one of the cornerstones of English literature — has been purchased by Sir Paul, who is renowned for his support of art and culture.
Alex Hardie, the bursar of Oriel College, confirmed the sale, saying that it had been forced by “a very tight funding climate”. “We have had to do what we can to raise money through our own resources,” he said.
“We want to sustain the college’s identity as a teaching and research centre of high quality, and to provide for students from the widest range of backgrounds. The sale of the First Folio will help us to do that.”
Hardie would not disclose how much the book had been sold for, but admitted that the sum was “not a million miles away” from £3.5 million. The proceeds would help to fund a £1.25 million renovation of a 17th-century hall at the college, and also help to finance the annual £40,000 to £50,000 bill for books and periodicals.
The First Folio will be kept with the rest of Getty’s famed collection of books and manuscripts in the library of Wormsley Lodge, his 2,500-acre estate in Oxfordshire.
The book bought by Sir Paul is a copy of one of the first editions of Shakespeare’s plays ever published and was printed eight years after the playwright died. Only 228 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio still exist around the world, but most are in public institutions and are rarely available for sale.
The publishing of the Shakespeare First Folio was the first time all of his plays were brought together into one volume. Until then, pamphlets, or “quartos” of his plays, were individually sold for six pence at the door of the theatres.
The First Folio originally numbered over 1,000 books, and the printing of his plays together for the first time was a major undertaking; it included 36 plays, 18 of which had never been published before.
The editors of the volume were two fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell.