Shakespeare’s First Folio isn’t terribly rare by antiquarian book standards, so what makes it so valuable? This is a question with many answers. For one, the First Folio is an important primary source for Shakespeare’s plays and the iconic image we recognize as Shakespeare. Its iconic cultural status, along with its infrequent appearance on the book market, make it more valuable than it would otherwise be. The current record sale price was set in October 2000, when a private collector purchased Abel Berland’s copy at Christie’s New York for $6.2 million.
A book this valuable is bound to attract thieves. In fact, three First Folios were stolen in the twentieth century — one from Williams College, Massachusetts in 1940; one from John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, England in 1972; and one from the University of Durham in 1998. Sadly, only two of these copies have been recovered. The Williams College copy was returned the same year it was stolen, while the Durham copy remained at large for a decade. It was brought into the Folger in 2008 by a man who claimed he was a book dealer who had acquired the volume in Cuba. The images on this page show just a few of the identifying details Folger staff and others used to authenticate and identify the book. The BBC documentary Stealing Shakespeare tells the story of the eccentric man at the center of the Durham First Folio case, and of the eventual return of the Folio to its home at Durham University.