Is There a Treasure on Your Bookshelf?
Many American families have an edition of Shakespeare’s plays that has been handed down for generations—and the Folger staff receives many questions about these volumes. A collection of the plays often has great personal value as part of a family’s history and traditions. Most of the time, however, such editions are not worth a great deal as rare books, although there are always exceptions.
Select from the list at left to see if you can identify your edition with our "field guide" or to read about the major US Shakespeare editors of the 1800s.
Evaluating your Shakespeare edition
The value of any particular edition today depends on its condition and its relative rarity.
For condition, ask yourself the following questions:
Is the binding intact and in good shape?
Are the pages clean with no or few brown spots (foxing)?
Are all the illustrations (if any) in place and in good condition?
Are all the volumes present?
Relative rarity can be discerned by any librarian who can look up the edition for you on WorldCat and see how many copies are listed in American libraries. At the library, you can also look for Bookman's Price Index and American Book Prices Current. Search under Shakespeare and see if any copies of your edition have come up for sale over the past ten years. Alternatively, you can look up your edition on a secondhand book website such as www.abebooks.com or www.bibliofind.com. Try to put in as much distinguishing information as possible, such as the editor’s last name or the place of publication.
Seeking expert help
If you think you might have an edition of some value, seek expert help. Libraries—including Folger Shakespeare Library—will not do appraisals of books, but you might check to see if there are any secondhand or antiquarian book dealers in your vicinity. Go to the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America site at www.abaa.org and click on “Our Booksellers” in the left margin, then choose your state from the dropdown menu and your city (don’t fill in the rest of the form).
Some Shakespeare editions are valued more as collectibles. A good example is the miniature Knickerbocker edition. In the early 1900s, the Knickerbocker Leather and Novelty Company in New York published a miniature edition of 24 of Shakespeare’s plays, plus his poem Venus and Adonis, all housed in a box. These proved to be very popular, and it is not hard to find individual volumes from the set, though a complete set with the box in good condition would be much more valuable than the separate volumes. (This edition should not be confused with the twelve-volume “Knickerbocker Edition” published in New York by G.P. Putnam’s around 1900.)
The miniature Knickerbocker edition of the early 1900s. Shakespeare. Works. New York, n.d. Folger Shakespeare Library.