The One That Got Away… Again!

October 11, 2015 at 1:03 pm (Asides) (, , , , , )

Back to the story of the First Folio that got away from Henry Folger. This story and many others are told by Andrea Mays in her book The Millionaire and the Bard. We left the Bodleian Library’s newly-rediscovered First Folio in the jubilant hands of the excellent Libarian Falconer Madan… the man with the worst poker face ever. Ever! He’s cheering far and wide about the fantastic lineage he’s unearthed for this long lost volume, jacking up the price tag, right out of the Bodleian’s ability to buy it.

Enter Henry Folger. Well, of course he wants it. He was buying up First Folios left and right with his Standard Oil money. He wanted all of them and for sure he wanted interesting copies like this, more than anything! This was his life’s obsession, buying these things. So what’s his Achille’s heel? He’s a cheapskate at heart. He doesn’t part easily with a pound sterling, so he tells his London bookbuyer to bid as low as possible.

Really, Henry? What the hell? You had the money and this was a once in a lifetime thing. In this case, the London bookbuyer also did Henry a disservice because they believed the Bodleian couldn’t raise anywhere near the funds that Henry was offering (about $15k) and they told Henry not to bother bidding higher. This was a grave tactical error.

The Bodleian went public asking for donations to save the precious book from leaving England, and the Turbutt family gave them extra time to raise it. After all, one of the Turbutt kids was a student at Oxford, and well, it would look bad. The (actual, not sub!) Bodleian librarian E.W.B. Nicholson tried to shame donations out of alumni, but still, they were short.

Folger wasn’t richer than the wealthy English families… why didn’t any of these old money aristocrats come to the Bodleian’s rescue? Who knows? They were busy living their Downton Abbey lives, hunting foxes and buying pretty clothes… no one was hunting First Folios but Folger.

Still, small donations came in and the issue of Britain’s cultural heritage crossing the Atlantic got more and more press. Even ugly cartoons… awful caricatures of Henry pursuing the Bodleian First Folio with sacks of money. Henry Folger hated press and here it was, all against his greedy, grabbing, American self. How awful! He just coveted the book. Why did this bother anyone?

Last minute donations (oddly including one from Turbutt himself?) saved the Bodleian First Folio from heading to Folger’s storage crates in America. Oh dear. Henry didn’t take losing well. He told the London bookbuyer Sotheran to offer Turbutt $25k (nearly double his initial offering, which was already unheard of crazy money at the time).

But it was too late, the Bodleian had bagged the deal. As Mays says, Henry lost it without having his best offer on the table. More weirdly, and a little window into Folger’s bizarre obsession, he asked Sotheran to offer the Bodleian librarian £1,500 to let Henry have “ownership” of the book during his lifetime. If need be, even letting the book remain in England. As Mays puts it, “In other words, Folger would not even demand that the folio be sent to him in America. He would be satisfied with the knowledge that he ‘owned’ the book in the abstract without ever having it in his possession. This was a psychological portrait of the mind of an obsessive collector.”

Um, ya think? Can you just picture all these staid London graybeards smoking their pipes in their dark-paneled and fine leather-filled club just laughing their heads off about the weird American while they drink their whiskey? His requests went nowhere and Henry finally gave up his pursuit. That book remains in Oxford and you can peruse it digitally from your desktop.

Get Andrea Mays’ book… there are so many great stories about Henry Folger and his Foliomania. It’s an amazing glimpse of his eccentricity, but you’ll also learn about Standard Oil (the source of his wealth), learn about his wife Emily who was his full partner in Foliomania, and gain a lot of insight into the importance of the First Folio.

The book includes a photo of the Folger Library’s 82 First Folios shelved in its underground vault. An amazing photo! One third of the known copies in the world, all sitting there on shelves in Washington DC. It leaves me to wonder which First Folio I had a close encounter with a few years ago. Was it Folger First Folio No. 1 — the precious Vincent Folio? The One That Did NOT Get Away? I doubt they bring that amazing book out for a bunch of library students to gawk at, but whichever it was, it was in beautiful condition and amazing to see up close.

I appreciate the Folger Library so much more now having read Andrea’s book. As she says, “Henry Folger was a brilliant, ethical American businessman. He was an unapologetic industrialist. And the Folger Shakespeare Library is a triumph of American capitalism and philanthropy.” When you’re in DC, be sure to stop by the Folger… it’s a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. You’ll get to see one of their First Folios behind glass, and even that is an incredible treat.

first folioBut even more exciting, the Folger is taking the First Folio on tour throughout the United States in 2016. The book will be displayed in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Check out the tour dates… I hope you can have a close encounter, too!

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