Much ado about rare Shakespeare book: UBC paid $7.4M for First Folio

The acquisition was announced earlier this year, but details of the payment were not released at the time

The UBC-bought copy of WIlliam Shakespeare's First Folio, on display last April at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It'll be on display again in 2023, when it turns 400 | Photo: Bob Mackin

The University of British Columbia paid almost $7.4 million for a rare copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio last year, according to the contract obtained under freedom of information. 

UBC Library announced the acquisition early this year and put the 1623-printed volume on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery from January to April.

Why such a high cost? It is one of 235 known copies remaining, published seven years after the Bard’s death, and contains 36 of his comedies, histories and tragedies. UBC said it is the only one north of California and the second in Canada. 

Documents show UBC wired $5.9 million from its U.S. currency account to Christie’s in New York via the J.P. Morgan Chase Bank on Aug. 5, 2021. According to the Bank of Canada currency exchange converter, US$5.9 million was worth $7.37 million in Canadian funds at the time.  

The sum is equal to the full course load tuition for 1,286 domestic students in arts, computer science, nursing and urban forestry. 

The documents provide no information about the previous owner or the donors that UBC said funded the acquisition. UBC has said that the Department of Canadian Heritage provided $500,000 under the Movable Cultural Grant Program, which subsidizes acquisition of “cultural property of outstanding significance and national importance to Canada.”

UBC decided to pay a great deal to be an owner, rather than a borrower nor a lender be, after Christie’s sold a copy for nearly US$10 million in October 2020. In July of this year, Sotheby’s sold one for US$6.16 million. 

The Christie’s Private Sale Offer to Purchase officially called the UBC-bought First Folio the “Apsley Cherry-Garrard copy,” so named for the previous owner, a South Pole adventurer who authored The Worst Journey in the World in 1922. 

Christie’s described the one sold to UBC as a “fine, clean copy.”

“Authentic, First Folio title-page with the portrait in the extremely rare second state Handsomely bound in full red morocco gilt by Staggemeier & Welcher, circa 1800 Median folio (302 x 194 mm) 453 leaves,” reads the description. “Complete except leaf A1 [To the Reader] from a Second Folio. Title-page mounted at an early date on old leaf within manuscript rule-frame. Final leaf mounted on a stub.”

UBC also spent $4,680.31 on round-trip airfare and $437.83 for a night in the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel so that Christina Geiger, Christie’s New York head of books and manuscripts, could deliver the First Folio on Sept. 27, 2021.

UBC is digitizing its copy of the First Folio for an augmented reality application and planning another public exhibition in 2023, the 400th anniversary of the book’s publication. 

UBC originally claimed the contract prohibited it from releasing the cost. The confidentiality clause, however, states: “Both of us agree to keep the terms of this agreement (which for us includes your identity) confidential unless we are required by law to reveal them. We will not have to reveal the identity of the seller to you.” 

B.C’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has repeatedly required public bodies to disclose their contracts for goods and services.

UBC finally disclosed the documents on Sept. 28 in response to a Jan. 14 freedom of information application. 

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, which is printed in the First Folio, the time is out of joint.