When the philanthropist Sir John Paul Getty died three years ago, specialist booksellers pondered nervously the impact on the market in which he had been the dominant buyer.
They breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when a First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, the first volume of the Bard's collected works, was sold by Sotheby's in London for £2.8m, making it the most valuable printed book the auctioneers had ever sold. Although the price was below the upper estimate of £3.5m, it was, observers noted, still a remarkable price for a book which - in book terms - is not even that rare.
Of the 750 printed when Shakespeare's friends brought together a total of 36 of his plays, 18 of which had not been previously printed, a third survive.
But nearly all of those are in libraries and other institutions, leaving the individual booklover with few opportunities to purchase. The nearest comparable copy was sold at Christie's in New York five years ago for £3m. This one, complete with its 17th-century binding of plain brown calf, was sold by the trustees of the Dr Williams's Library, a London institution for research on English Protestant dissent.
Peter Selley, the auctioneer in charge of the sale, said they were delighted. "[The] sale will significantly help the Library by securing its finances and safeguarding its important historic collection of manuscripts and printed books."
The new owner is not known. The bidder was a London dealer, Simon Finch Rare Books, although an auction insider said: "It would be unlikely that a dealer would buy a book like this for stock." That is, he probably had someone lined up.
Six weeks before his death, John Paul Getty himself had purchased his own copy of a First Folio for £3.5m from Oriel College, Oxford. Charles Dupplin, an expert on book sales with the specialist insurer Hiscox, said: "Getty was a tremendous book collector and singlehandedly he was buying all the best books for many years. The great fear was after he died that the value of these very special books would sink back a lot. But this shows that there are still collectors who are prepared to pay very big sums for very special stuff."
By comparison, some equally rare early gems sold this week seem a bargain. A Coverdale's Bible, the first entire Bible in English, dating from 1535, went for £91,200 at Sotheby's on Wednesday, and a first-edition 1611 King James Bible sold for £45,600.
But Nigel Williams, who runs a rare books shop specialising mainly in more modern first editions, agreed a First Folio would be a treasure for any literature-lover to acquire. "If they have the money, the highlight of their collection would be a First Folio. They would probably have a first edition of Gulliver's Travels, Jane Eyre, Dickens..." he said.
But any old copy will not do. First edition collectors are interested in the rarity and the condition of any potential purchase. "Dust-wrappers make the difference. Some things are virtually unknown [with wrappers] from the turn of the century," Mr Williams said. A first edition Hound of the Baskervilles in its original 1902 dust-wrapper went for £85,000 against a price of up to £3,000 without it."
The top five sales
£5,501,563 John James Audubon, The Birds of America, The Fox-Bute Copy - Christie's New York, March 2000
£4,621,500 The Rockingham copy of Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales - Christie's London, July 1998
£4,342,253 William Shakespeare, Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623) The First Folio - Christie's New York, October 2001
£3,300,000 The Gutenberg Bible, Mainz, (c. 1455) - Christie's New York, October 1987
£3,172,881 John James Audubon, The Birds of America, The Providence Athenaeum Set - Christie's New York, December 2005