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Shakespeare’s First Folio Acquired by UBC in ‘Once in Eternity’ Purchase

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First Folio is a complete first edition of William Shakespeare’s Comedies Histories and Tragedies.ERIC WONG/UBC Library Communication

An extremely rare and valuable first complete edition of Comedies, stories and tragedies of William Shakespeare – known as First Folio – was acquired by the University of British Columbia. The purchase of the nearly 400-year-old book follows a relentless campaign by two determined UBC bibliophiles, recognition of their dedication by a prestigious auction house, a substantial government grant, to an anonymous, deep-pocketed network of donors across North America, a volunteer vendor — also anonymous — and a concerted international effort linked by Zoom calls during a pandemic.

“It really took a village to bring this book to British Columbia,” says Katherine Kalsbeek, rare books and special collections (RBSC) manager at the UBC Library, one of the main players in this drama.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition given to a public university by the most prestigious auction house in the world,” says his partner in the venture, Gregory Mackie, associate professor in the department of language and literatures. English Studies at UBC and Norman Colbeck Curator at RBSC.

The First Folio, Shakespeare’s first printed collection, is a compendium of almost all of his plays. Published seven years after the Bard’s death and edited by his close friends and colleagues, the 36-book collection is credited with preserving some previously unpublished titles that might otherwise have been lost, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Storm and twelfth night.

“This is an original from 1623, one of the most valuable books in the world,” says Christopher Gaze, artistic director of Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, which contributed to the effort.

It is believed that around 750 copies were originally printed; an estimated 235 copies remain. Before this copy arrived in Vancouver, there was only one in Canada, at the University of Toronto. Dr. Mackie vividly remembers the impact seeing the First Folio in person had on him as a doctoral student at U of T. The UBC prof wanted to offer that kind of access to students from Vancouver and Western Canada.

The university began preliminary work to investigate the purchase of the book when a California college put it up for sale.ERIC WONG/UBC Library Communication

The UBC acquisition is known as the Cherry-Garrard copy, as it was once owned by famed Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard (author of the 1922 memoir The worst trip in the world, title suggested to him by his neighbor, George Bernard Shaw, notes Dr. Mackie, during an interview).

Prior to UBC, the book was privately owned in the United States. Even buyers don’t know who this person is. the seller’s anonymity was a condition of the sale. Its authenticity has been verified by Christie’s, the auction house that organized the transaction.

“The provenance was solid,” says Ms. Kalsbeek, noting that the Department of Canadian Heritage agreed. “Although we do not know the identity of the individual, we do know the history and custody of the ownership of this copy. “

Dr Mackie adds: “We can trace its provenance back to the 18th century, but with a small gap and that gap is the owner just before us.”

The selling price is not made public – it is also part of the contract with the shipper. The purchase may have cost millions, but the UBC team says it didn’t set a record.

The genesis of the landmark acquisition came shortly before the pandemic hit North America. In February 2020, Dr. Mackie was attending an antiquarian book fair in California when he heard of a First Folio 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 Mrs. Kalsbeek thought it would be a big hit; others were more skeptical. “People laughed at us,” says Dr. Mackie. Not because they didn’t think what they were doing was worth it, but because it was too high a goal for UBC. A bit of a goose hunt, if you will.

Still, the university began preliminary work to investigate the purchase of the book, which was being sold by a California college. They inquired with Christie’s, the auction house facilitating the sale, and did an exploratory fundraiser. But after a few months, UBC, knowing it would be impossible to participate in the auction, did not bid.

Indeed, the copy sold in October 2020 for nearly 10 million US dollars, a record; it was purchased by a private collector.

The sale was officially closed in August.ERIC WONG/UBC Library Communication

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 hadn’t worked out.

About six weeks later, UBC heard from Ms. Geiger, who heads the books and manuscripts department at Christie’s, New York. “She said we were so impressed with your determination, your daring, your hard work,” Dr Mackie recalled. “How about if we could find you another copy at a private sale?” They said yes, please.

Christie’s offered to help with fundraising.

“We just thought if anyone deserved it, it was the University of British Columbia, because of Katherine and Greg’s energy, ambition and vision for what they were going to do. with the First Folio,” Margaret Ford, international head of books and manuscripts for Christie’s, said in a conversation this week from the UK.

She said her co-worker’s voicemail after the first auction was a bit out of the norm. “And it was just very nice, to be perfectly frank. So as soon as we had the opportunity to get another copy of it, UBC was absolutely top of the list.

Mrs. Kalsbeek and Dr. Mackie returned to their quest. Christie’s helped connect them with potential donors. “People have supported this project who have never heard of UBC before,” says Kalsbeek.

“It was really Greg and I 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 put everything they had into the project. Each evening, as they prepared dinner in their respective homes, Mrs. Kalsbeek and Dr. Mackie updated each other on the day’s achievements and obstacles.

They think they worked every weekend from January to June last year.

One Friday morning, as they approached a deadline to raise some money, they heard about a federal grant that could help them. That afternoon, they received confirmation from Canadian Heritage that yes, they could be eligible for a Movable Cultural Property Grant. But they should apply by Monday morning at 9 a.m. ET (or 6 a.m. Vancouver time). That weekend, the two prepared a 130-page grant application. They were rewarded for their efforts with a $500,000 grant from Canadian Heritage.

“If we hadn’t gotten this grant, we wouldn’t have met the deadline and I think the opportunity would have disappeared,” says Ms. Kalsbeek.

The sale was officially closed in August. And one day in late September, Ms. Geiger, who works at Christie’s in New York, flew to Vancouver with the book in a specially designed slipcase. Even Canada Border Services Agency officers, who had been briefed prior to his arrival, were caught up in the excitement.

The acquisition comes with a mandate to ensure public access.ERIC WONG/UBC Library Communication

In the pouring rain, Ms. Geiger and the book were driven to UBC in an armored car with two security guards; Ms. Kalsbeek and Dr. Mackie, who had met Ms. Geiger at the airport, returned to campus in Dr. Mackie’s Mazda.

The box was officially unpacked in a conference room at the Irving K. Barber Learning Center, where the RBSC – and its vault – are located. A small group watched Ms. Geiger lay the book on a large pillow that had been placed on the meeting room 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,” Ms Kalsbeek adds.

At a small celebratory dinner that evening, Ms Geiger told Ms Kalsbeek that her phone message after the October 2020 auction was motivation. “Your sad voicemail message made me want to find you another copy,” Ms Kalsbeek recalled, remembering Ms Geiger telling her. “She said I was 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 has asked the Vancouver Art Gallery if it would like to exhibit the acquisition. The small exhibition For All Time: The Shakespeare First Folio, which opens on Saturday, will also feature three later 17th-century folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays – and a touch table that will allow visitors to flip through some pages virtually.

The gallery will also host programs and debates. VAG CEO and director Anthony Kiendl acknowledges that some people might raise the issue of giving space to “another dead white man”, in light of calls for fairness in public institutions.

“But I think these are important conversations to have,” he says, emphasizing that he wants the gallery to be a place where people come together to discuss ideas. “I hope this is an example of a different direction for the gallery, complementing what we already do, but not taking it away.”

Among the guests invited to attend the announcement and launch of the VAG exhibit on Wednesday morning were the delighted CBSA guards.

Once the book returns to UBC, it will be made available to researchers, faculty and students. Other technological initiatives are planned to increase this access.

“This whole project was impossible, so we did it anyway; it’s our motto,” says Dr. Mackie. He had another currency, a line he borrowed from measure for measure, one of the pieces that might not have survived without the First Folio.

“Our doubts are traitors, And cause us to lose the good we could often gain, Fearing to try.”

For All Time: The Shakespeare First Folio is at the Vancouver Art Gallery from January 15 to March 20.