Henry and Emily Folger collected eighty-two First Folios — one third of the known 232 copies — in a span of just thirty-five years. Both the rate and the quantity of acquisition are unique in the antiquarian book collecting.
As a collector, Henry Folger was a shrewd negotiator. Though he sometimes received hostile responses to his inquiries, he forged ahead, and in the end, he often got the volume he was after. In 1905, Mr. Folger made a bid for the First Folio known as the “Deposit Copy” — the copy sent by printer William Jaggard to the Stationers’ Company in London in accordance with a 1611 law. Not realizing how important the first edition would become, the Bodelian Library had sold the Deposit Copy in the 1660s in favor of the more up-to-date Third Folio. The copy remained in private hands until 1905, when the owner received an offer from a London book dealer on behalf of an unidentified collector. The owner offered the Bodleian the chance to match the £3,000 bid. The Bodleian came up with the funds and the Deposit Copy returned to its original home — a happy ending to the story for all but the “mysterious millionaire” who wanted to buy the copy. That was, of course, Henry Folger.
Mr. Folger conducted much of his business through book dealers, including renowned Philadelphia book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach. Rosenbach was a collector in his own right, and along with London book dealer Bernard Quaritch, he led the market in First Folios. He owned two boats in his lifetime, which he named the First Folio I and the First Folio II.
Rosenbach orchestrated the purchase of one of Henry Folger’s finest copies – the Burdett-Coutts First Folio. Prior to Henry Folger, this Folio belonged to the estate of Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts (1814–1906, Baroness from 1871). A member of a banker’s family, Burdett-Coutts was the wealthiest unmarried heiress in England before she married her much younger American-born secretary. She purchased this copy (one of two First Folios she owned) in 1864 for a new record price. Her adoration for the volume was clear. In 1866, Burdett-Coutts commissioned a footed casket, carved out of wood from the felled Herne’s Oak. The casket has compartments which at one time housed the First Folio and a copy of the 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s poems, illustrating the extremes to which some owners went to protect and revere their Folios.
A.S.W. Rosenbach, Carrie Price and Captain Maxwell fishing on the First Folio.
William Perry. Casket, carved in an Elizabethan style (realia), 1866
The Folger Portraits