Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": Shakespeare Folio

"Scattered Heritage": An edition of the first folio of Shakespeare's plays printed in 1623 and valued at up to £3 million now in Australia is the subject of a huge diplomatic dispute between Britain and Australia. Britain claims the object was stolen twelve years ago, while the Coober Pedy Arts Institute (CPAI), a multimillion dollar institution created in 1999 claim to be its rightful owners and deny that Britain can prove that the copy they bought was stolen.

Britain alleges that the folio was among a number of valuable books and manuscripts taken from the library of Durham University in December 1998, where it had been since the seventeenth century. The object was sold by northern British art dealer, Raimund Welshman, who claimed he had got it from a contact in the Lebanon (where allegedly the book had been found in the library of a school set up there by French missionaries in 1921). The object was accompanied by a Lebanese export licence.

The volume was acquired in 2003 by the CPAI after it had been authenticated by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC and the Lebanese export licence was checked and found to be genuine. British investigators allege the latter was obtained under false pretences, and the Folger should have noted the resemblance of the newly-surfaced work and the Durham example. Officials at the Washington museum counter that the newly-surfaced work was of completely different dimensions from the Durham one and bore none of the characteristic marks of the latter and was in a modern binding instead of the nineteenth century cover of the missing Durham volume. There was no reason to suspect that Mr Welshman had been involved in any theft, the object had a perfectly plausible sounding pedigree.

The first folio is regarded by academics as one of the most important printed books in English, as Bill Bryson, Chancellor of Durham University, says: “Like Shakespeare himself, this book is a national treasure, giving a rare and beautiful snapshot of Britain’s incredible literary heritage”. An estimated 750 copies were published by the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell in 1623, only seven years after the playwright’s death. The book contains transcripts of 36 plays, half of which had not previously been published, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew. As the definitive anthology of his plays, it provides the basis for all subsequent collections. About 230 copies are recorded as “extant”, with more than a half in the United States. Fewer than 30 copies of the folio remain in Britain, including five at the British Library.

Britain has placed a formal request for the return of the volume, but the Board of Directors of the Coober Pedy Art Institute says that only if Britain can provide documentation that the item was stolen will they consider returning it, and they have Australian public opinion behind them. Obviously Shakespeare has a significance for the Australians too.

David Brown, 'William Shakespeare folio worth £15m recovered 10 years after being stolen', The Times July 12, 2008.

Photo: this is not the disputed Coober Pedy volume but one that looks like it.

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