Why Shakespeare is the world's worst stolen treasure.

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July 17 2008 2:40 PM

Folioed Again!

Why Shakespeare is the world's worst stolen treasure.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

When Raymond Scott—the colorfully eccentric 51-year-old book dealer, champagne connoisseur, and shiny-suited wooer of nightclub dancers—walked into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., recently to get a 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare appraised, he didn't realize, he says, he'd be accused of possessing a folio stolen from the Durham University library in England. His folio, he claims, was simply a friend's lucky find in Cuba. As Scott proclaims in a Washington Post profile today, at the time of the 1998 robbery at Durham University, "I wouldn't have known the difference between a First Folio Shakespeare and a paperback Jackie Collins." The Folger's expert verification of the stolen Folio's identity, he contends, is just plain wrong.

Just how much Scott knows about rare first editions, only time—or perhaps a plea bargain—will tell. But what he clearly doesn't know is what any folio scholar could tell him: that aside from a face-melting Ark of the Covenant, a Shakespeare First Folio is the lousiest loot in the world to steal.

That sounds unlikely, seeing as how every major media source from the Times on down has trumpeted the recovered Folio as "valued at $30 million." At the time of the 1998 heist, the BBC reported a rather more modest value of £250,000 for the folio and the four other books stolen. Since then, other folios have indeed commanded an eye-popping $5.2 million and $6.2 million at auction—but they were in their original bindings, which the Durham folio is not. So this folio is not worth the fabled $30 million to any thief—and, for reasons unique to folios, it's not even worth a warm bucket of spit.

Here's why: The 230 surviving First Folios are now the most minutely studied published works in history. The folio is unusual in that two centuries of records trace the path of specific copies. In recent decades, similar censuses have been held of all surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, Audubon's Birds of America, and Copernicus' De Revolutionibus. But the pursuit of folio-spotting remains unparalleled in literature, beginning with Thomas Dibdin's first census of folio owners in the London area in 1824 and Sidney Lee's worldwide folio census in 1901, detailing the condition and identifying marks of every known copy.

Does the folio have graffiti inviting the reader "to kisse the wrightere's arse"? Then it once belonged to theologian Daniel Williams. Were several plays used as scrap paper for loopy handwriting exercises by a quill-wielding 17th-century child? Then you're probably looking at the Sutro Library's folio. Did your folio contain greasy food stains and crumbs fallen into the binding? Then you're in the British Library with Samuel Johnson's old copy.

University of London scholar Anthony James West has been crisscrossing the world in the survey's fourth and most insanely ambitious iteration, a decadeslong project of traveling to examine every folio in existence personally. After two volumes that traced folio prices and the particulars of each of the 230 copies, West is compiling material for projected future volumes that will include such minutiae as the paper-manufacturing chain marks and watermarks in each page of each copy.

In the case of the Durham copy, there's plenty for authorities to work with. The dimensions of the Durham folio are already known, because each time a book is bound or rebound, as folios often are over the course of four centuries, they're likely to be retrimmed slightly. Their exact resulting size depends upon the hand of the binder. Folios, as a result, have a range of sizes. Also, folios weren't issued in uniform bindings; the original customers often bought unbound sheets and hired their own binders, so each folio has its own distinct local binding.

It gets even worse for folio fiends. Thanks to the rather shaky quality control of Renaissance printers, corrections were done on the fly, and the uncorrected pages were still used, anyway. Shakespeare's publisher, William Jaggard, routinely bound together various runs of both uncorrected and corrected pages, in no particular order, so each folio has a unique combination of sheets mixed in various stages of correction. Scholars spent years in the 1950s and 1960s using a bizarre optical contraption known as a Hinman Collator to compare folios for textual variants: No two copies have been found to possess exactly the same combination of pages.

Thanks to a careful inventory of Durham folio pages performed in 1905, a number of its identifying marks are already well-known. There's a patched hole in the colophon, for instance; there's a broken clasp on the outside of the book; there's a specific annotation regarding Troilus and Cressida. What's more, any scan or photos made of Durham folio pages before the folio was stolen would have preserved its distinct set of textual variants. History suggests that the odds of another folio having the same set of variants are essentially nil; common sense would dictate that any other details like telltale pen marks, ember burn holes—which are surprisingly common in old folios—and tears are not likely to be duplicated exactly in any two books.

It's because of obstacles like these that the last theft of a First Folio—from the Williams College library in 1940—also ended disastrously. Four months after gaining entry with the forged papers of a fictitious "Professor Sinclair E. Gillingham" of Middlebury College, the thief turned himself in and fingered three fellow conspirators. The reason? The folio they'd stolen was hot enough to roast marshmallows over. It was unsalable. This didn't exactly end their criminal careers, as folio historian Harold Otness has noted: "The sentencing judge received a letter asking for leniency for the aircraft worker [of the gang] because he was designing a special military plane. That letter was a forgery."

The Durham thief faces a particularly nasty bit of bad luck, though. Although reports indicate that a potentially telltale marked-up endpaper is now missing in this copy, it's highly unlikely that a thief would have sliced out the title page, with its iconic portrait of Shakespeare. As it happens, during a couple decades in the mid-1600s that the Durham folio spent at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, the school's pressmark—an idiosyncratic cataloging notation—was applied to the title page.

If that Peterhouse mark turns up in the copy now in the Folger's custody, Mr. Scott may want to have a long talk with that book-loving friend of his in Cuba.

Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.

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