An exceedingly rare and valuable complete first edition of William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies – known as the First Folio – has been acquired by the University of British Columbia. The purchase of the nearly 400-year-old book follows a relentless side-of-their desks campaign by two determined UBC bibliophiles, a recognition of their dedication by a prestigious auction house, a substantial government grant, a network of deep-pocketed anonymous donors from across North America, a willing seller – also anonymous – and a concerted international effort connected by Zoom calls during a pandemic.
“It really did take a village to bring this book to B.C.,” says Katherine Kalsbeek, head of rare books and special collections (RBSC) at UBC Library, one of the main players in this drama.
“This was a once-in-eternity proposition being given to a public university by the most prestigious auction house in the world,” says her partner in this venture, Gregory Mackie, associate professor in the department of English language and literatures at UBC, and Norman Colbeck curator at RBSC.
The First Folio, Shakespeare’s first printed collection, is a compendium of nearly all his plays. Published seven years after the Bard’s death and edited by his close friends and colleagues, the collection of 36 works is credited with preserving some titles that had not been previously published and may otherwise have been lost, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Twelfth Night.
“This is an original from 1623, one of the most valuable books in the world,” says the artistic director of Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Christopher Gaze, who provided some assistance in the effort.
It’s believed about 750 copies were originally printed; an estimated 235 copies are known to remain. Prior to this copy arriving in Vancouver, there was only one in Canada, at the University of Toronto. Dr. Mackie can vividly recall the impact seeing the First Folio in person had on him as a PhD student at U of T. The UBC professor wanted to offer that kind of access to students in Vancouver and Western Canada.
UBC’s acquisition is known as the Cherry-Garrard copy, because it was once owned by the famed Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard (author of the 1922 memoir The Worst Journey in the World, a title suggested to him by his neighbour, George Bernard Shaw, Dr. Mackie notes, during an interview).
Prior to UBC, the book was owned privately in the U.S. Not even the buyers know who that person is; the seller’s anonymity was a condition of the sale. Its authenticity was vetted by Christie’s, the auction house that arranged the transaction.
“The provenance was solid,” says Ms. Kalsbeek, noting that the Department of Canadian Heritage agreed. “Although we don’t know the identity of the individual, we do know this copy’s history and custody of ownership.”
Adds Dr. Mackie: “We can trace its provenance back to the 18th century, but with one tiny gap and that gap is the owner just prior to us.”
The sale price is not being made public – also part of the contract with the consignor. The purchase certainly cost millions, but the UBC team says it did not set a record.
The genesis of the historic acquisition came shortly before the pandemic erupted in North America. In February, 2020, Dr. Mackie was attending an antiquarian book fair in California when he heard about a First Folio that was coming to market; it was the first time in nearly 20 years that such a book would be available for sale. He returned to UBC with a proposal.
He and Ms. Kalsbeek thought it would be a great coup; others were more skeptical. “People laughed at us,” says Dr. Mackie. Not because they didn’t think that what they were doing was worthwhile, but because if felt too impossibly lofty a goal for UBC. A bit of a wild-goose chase, if you will.
Still, the university began some preliminary work to investigate buying the book, which was being sold by a California college. They made inquiries with Christie’s, the auction house facilitating the sale, and did some exploratory fundraising. But after a few months, UBC, knowing it would be impossible to compete at auction, did not bid.
Indeed, the copy sold in October, 2020, for nearly US$10-million, a record; it was bought by a private collector.
After the sale, Ms. Kalsbeek called one of her contacts at Christie’s, Christina Geiger, and left a voicemail expressing how sad she was that things didn’t work out.
About six weeks later, UBC heard back from Ms. Geiger, who is head of the Books and Manuscripts Department at Christie’s, New York. “She said we were so impressed by your determination, your chutzpah, your hard work,” recalls Dr. Mackie. “What would you say if we could find you another copy in a private sale?” They said yes, please.
Christie’s offered to help with fundraising.
“We just thought if anybody kind of deserves it then the University of British Columbia does, because of Katherine and Greg’s energy, ambition and vision for what they were going to do with the First Folio,” said Margaret Ford, international head of books and manuscripts for Christie’s, during a conversation this week from the U.K.
She said that voicemail to her colleague after the initial auction was a little out of the norm. “And it was just very nice, to be perfectly frank. So as soon as we had an opportunity for another copy, UBC was absolutely top of the list.”
Ms. Kalsbeek and Dr. Mackie returned to their quest. Christie’s helped connect them with possible donors. “People supported this project who had never heard of UBC before,” says Ms. Kalsbeek.
“It was really Greg and me over a period of almost a-year-and-a-half knocking on many, many, many doors,” she says.
“Virtually,” adds Dr. Mackie.
The pandemic, in some ways, helped: There was nothing else to do, so they poured everything they had into the project. Each night while preparing dinner at their respective homes, Ms. Kalsbeek and Dr. Mackie would update each other on the day’s accomplishments and obstacles.
They figure they worked every weekend, from January to June of last year.
One Friday morning, as they were approaching a deadline to raise a certain amount of money, they heard about a federal grant that might help. That afternoon, they received confirmation from Canadian Heritage that yes, they could be eligible for a Movable Cultural Property Grant. But they would need to apply by Monday morning at 9 a.m. ET (or the stroke of 6 a.m. Vancouver time). That weekend, the two of them put together a 130-page grant application. They were rewarded for their efforts with a $500,000 grant from Heritage Canada.
“If we hadn’t secured that grant, we wouldn’t have met the deadline and I think the opportunity would have disappeared,” says Ms. Kalsbeek.
The sale was officially completed in August. And on a late September day, Ms. Geiger, who is based at Christie’s in New York, flew to Vancouver accompanied by the book inside a specially made case. Even the Canada Border Services Agency officers, who had been briefed before its arrival, became caught up in the excitement.
In pouring rain, Ms. Geiger and the book were driven to UBC in an armoured car with two security guards; Ms. Kalsbeek and Dr. Mackie, who had met Ms. Geiger at the airport, made their way back to campus in Dr. Mackie’s Mazda.
The box was formally uncrated in a conference room at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, where RBSC – and its vault – are located. A small group watched as Ms. Geiger laid the book on a large pillow that had been placed on the boardroom table.
“It was a totally breathtaking magical moment. It’s hard to exaggerate,” says Dr. Mackie.
“We both shed a few tears, if I remember correctly,” adds Ms. Kalsbeek.
At a small celebratory dinner that night, Ms. Geiger told Ms. Kalsbeek that her phone message after the October, 2020, auction was a motivator. “Your sad voicemail made me want to find you another copy,” Ms. Kalsbeek recalls Ms. Geiger telling her. “She said I was just so stunned by your enthusiasm, Greg’s enthusiasm … that I was inspired to find you another copy. If you hadn’t left that voicemail that day I’m not sure I would have been inspired to make this happen.”
The acquisition comes with a mandate to ensure public access – and the university asked the Vancouver Art Gallery if it would like to display the acquisition. The small exhibition For All Time: The Shakespeare First Folio, opening Saturday, will also feature three subsequent 17th century folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays – and a touch table that will allow visitors to virtually flip through some pages.
The gallery will also host programs and discussions. VAG CEO and director Anthony Kiendl acknowledges some people might raise the question of giving space to “another dead white male,” in light of calls for equity at public institutions.
“But I think these are important conversations to have,” he says, stressing that he wants the gallery to be a place where people come together to discuss ideas. “I hope that this is an example of a different direction for the gallery, complementing what we already do, but not taking away from it.”
Among the guests invited to watch the announcement and VAG exhibition launch Wednesday morning were those delighted CBSA guards.
After the book comes home to UBC, it will be made available to researchers, faculty and students. There are plans for more technological initiatives to increase that access.
“This whole project has been impossible, so we just did it anyway; that’s been our motto,” says Dr. Mackie. He had another motto, a line he borrowed from Measure for Measure, one of the plays that might not have survived had it not been for the First Folio.
“Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win, By fearing to attempt.”
For All Time: The Shakespeare First Folio is at the Vancouver Art Gallery Jan. 15 to March 20.