A rare and valuable first folio of the works of William Shakespeare believed to be worth around £4m has been discovered in a small town in northern France.
It had lain undisturbed in the archive of the library in Saint-Omer, near Calais, for more than 200 years until Rémy Cordonnier, the director of the library’s medieval and early modern collection, suspected that the book might actually be a first folio.
The volume, which had had its title page and the portrait of Shakespeare that is the hallmark of a first folio torn off, had been catalogued as an unremarkable 18th century edition.
But when Cordonnier called in American Shakespearean expert Eric Rasmussen to authenticate the volume his suspicions proved correct, bringing the total of the world’s known surviving first folios to 233.
“This is huge,” Rasmussen told the New York times. “First folios don’t turn up very often, and when they do, it’s usually a really chewed up, uninteresting copy. But this one is magnificent.”
First folios, which contain 36 of the Bard’s works, are like the Holy Grail for Shakespearean scholars.
Each one is different, with each minute detail scrutinised by academics to reveal more about the playwright’s intentions.
First folios are considered the only reliable text for half of Shakespeare’s plays – the original manuscripts for which are lost.
Cordonnier said: “It was very emotional to realise we had a copy of one of the most famous books in the world. I was already imagining the reaction it would cause.
A run of around 800 first folios were published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, by his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell.
The name “Nevill” had been written on the Saint-Omer folio and there are notes and directions on the play Henry IV which are believed to date from the time it was published.
The first folio is believed to have been brought to the town by a Jesuit order that welcomed Roman Catholic clergy fleeing Protestant persecution.
There are no plans to exhibit the folio, but Cordonnier says it will be scanned and published on the library’s website and will be available for other academic institutions to borrow.
One first folio sold for £3.7m in New York in 2001 and another was sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $6.8m.