Shakespeare’s First Folio acquired by UBC in ‘once-in-eternity’ purchase

A rare and valuable complete first edition of William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies – known as the First Folio – sits on display at a new exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. JESSE WINTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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 unnamed – and a concerted international effort connected by Zoom calls during a pandemic.

“It 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 leading players in this drama.

“This was a once-internity 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 literature at UBC, and Norman Colbeck curator at RBSC.

Shakespeare’s first printed collection, The First Folio, is a compendium of nearly all his plays. Published seven years after 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. The latter provided some assistance in the effort.

It’s believed about 750 copies were printed initially; an estimated 235 copies are known to remain. Before this copy arrived in Vancouver, there was only one in Canada, at the University of Toronto. Dr. Mackie can vividly recall seeing the First Folio in person had on him as a Ph.D. student at U of T. The UBC professor wanted to offer students in Vancouver and Western Canada that kind of access.

Gregory Mackie, an associate professor in the English language and literature department at UBC, walks through a new exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. JESSE WINTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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 neighbor, George Bernard Shaw, Dr. Mackie notes, during an interview).

Before 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. Christie’s, the auction house that arranged the transaction, its authenticity was vetted.

“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 before us.”

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, 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, global head of books and manuscripts for Christie’s, during a conversation this week from the U.K.

The sale was officially completed in August. PHOEBE CHAN/UBC LIBRARY COMMUNICATIONS

She said 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.”