Without it, we would know nothing of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Julius Caesar or The Taming of the Shrew.
The First Folio, the first edition of the Bard's complete collected works, is the most important text in English literature, gathered together within years of his death by actors of the playwright's King's Men company eager to immortalise their late friend's genius. So when Sotheby's announced yesterday that it is to sell one of the rare surviving editions, still in its mid-17th century calf binding, the excitement was palpable.
Conservatively priced at up to £3.5m, Stephen Roe, head of books and manuscripts, admitted the auction house was "quietly hopeful" that it would break the previous record for a First Folio of more than $6m (£4.2m at the time) set in New York four years ago.
The volume is one of only 228 to have survived from the original print run of 750 in 1623 and has been in the Dr Williams's Library in London for the past three centuries, providing the longest uninterrupted ownership of any of the copies.
The library, established in the early 18th century under the will of Dr Daniel Williams, a leading dissenting minister, is selling the Folio to safeguard its future as the pre-eminent research library for English Protestant dissent.
David Wykes, its director, said it had been proud to own such a remarkable book, but it accounted for a third of the library's annual insurance bill and was so important that it was a security risk. "Its sale will secure the finances of the library and safeguard our important historic collections ... for future generations," he said. Peter Selley, Sotheby's English literature specialist, said: "This book has been called indisputably the most important book in English literature and the most important secular book of all time."
It was the most exciting item he had ever sold at auction, partly because relatively complete copies of the Folio in contemporary bindings hardly ever came on to the market, he said. "There is only one copy recorded as remaining in private hands [that sold by Oriel College, Oxford, to the late Sir Paul Getty in 2002]. This sale will be a truly exceptional event," he added.
The First Folio would have been bought unbound when it was first published for 15 to 20 shillings, about £90 or £100 in today's money, making it a "luxury" item. It contains 36 plays, 18 of which had not been previously printed in any form, including A Winter's Tale, The Tempest, As You Like It, Coriolanus and Measure for Measure.
Sotheby's is mounting an Age of Shakespeare exhibition, with the First Folio as its star exhibit, which will tour the world prior to sale in London on 13 July.
Asked whether it would be a sad loss were it to be sold overseas, Dr Roe insisted not. "It's world literature," he said. "It's not just for the UK."Reuse content