Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Shakespeare Thefts by Eric Rasmussen

The first edition of Shakespeare's dramatic works, also known as the First Folio, published in 1623 is one of the most famous and valuable books in the world. It is also attractive to thieves. A census of the First Folios in 1902 identified 152 extant copies. Nearly a century later, Eric Rasmussen and a research team went on the hunt for First Folios in order to catalog known copies in detail and to search for those that have vanished. This team of folio hunters identified 232 known copies. As Rasmussen writes in the preface to his book:

"The Shakespeare Thefts explores what my team of First Folio hunters and I learned while cataloging, in situ, each of the known copies and searching for those that have vanished. Like a Shakespearean play, we uncovered a fascinating world ... one populated with thieves, masterminds, fools, and eccentrics, all of whom have risked fortunes and reputations to possess a coveted First Folio."

The Shakespeare Thefts reminded me of a book I read years ago about the antique map trade. That trade is populated with personalities ranging from eccentric to criminal, and high levels of intrigue are involved. The antique book trade appears to be quite similar. This makes for some good storytelling, and good storytelling is what you get with The Shakespeare Thefts.

Some of the challenges faced by the research team are quite interesting. Scrutinizing antique books seems like a low risk enterprise, but what about the First Folio that is stored with Madame Curie's notebooks? The researcher that spent countless hours cataloging and describing that folio in detail was required to do so in the same room with the (radioactive?) Curie notebooks. An interesting anecdote at the very least!

A recent story involves Raymond Rickett Scott who brought what appeared to be a First Folio into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. to have it authenticated on June 16, 2008. Because of research and cataloging done over the years, the First Folio brought in by Scott was identified as a copy missing from Durham University. Scott was not proven to have stolen the folio, but he was prosecuted and sentenced for the handling of stolen goods and removing stolen goods from Britain. The documentary Stealing Shakespeare recounts this episode for those interested.

Other stories and mysteries surrounding First Folios remain unsolved, but hopefully the research and documentation done by those like Rasmussen will be used to identify missing copies in the future and make it more difficult for those committing thievery or fraud. As Rasmussen points out: " ... having so many details recorded about an individual volume should give anyone pause when it comes to filching a First Folio."

The book is brief and entertaining (I read the 182 pages in one sitting) which will be disappointing for those wishing for an in-depth look at this topic, but it does include a photo section, notes, and an index. For those looking for an entertaining bit of real life mystery and intrigue, The Shakespeare Thefts will not disappoint -- it is a real life literary detective story that spans centuries of history.

1 comment:

  1. This book sounds right up my alley right about now. I think, though, I might fall into the category of those wishing for more than just 182 pages! However, I've stil put it on the TBR, thanks for getting this on my radar!