Stolen Shakespeare: the story of Durham’s First Folio

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The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D. C., is named after American oil executive Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily. The Folgers were avid collectors of all things Shakespearean, and used their fortune to purchase rare editions of his works, until they had a public library built to house their collection in 1932. Today, the Folger possesses 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, making it the largest collection of them in the world – only 235 copies are known to exist. Published in 1623, the First Folio is a cornerstone of English literature, containing 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. Without it, at least 18 plays, including Twelfth Night, The Tempest and Macbeth, would have been lost.

The First Folio is a cornerstone of English literature

Last summer, I was lucky enough to visit Washington D. C. with my family and, an English student through and through, insisted on going to the Folger. Outside, it is a sleek, white building that blends in with the city’s rigorously landscaped appearance, but inside resembles an Elizabethan great hall, including a matching reading room and small Globe-like theatre.

It was a quiet day when we visited, and a staff member leapt up to show us around. I mentioned that I studied literature in England (I didn’t say which university) and she took it upon herself to tell me all the stories she knew about the library and about Shakespeare. She was just about to leave us to look around, but added “Oh, I’ve just got one more story – it’s my favourite, actually.” The story she went on to tell was unexpected to say the least because, as it turned out, it was about Durham University.

On 16th June 2008, shortly after 9am, a man walked into the Folger Shakespeare Library holding a brown leather briefcase containing what he called ‘an old Shakespeare book’, which he claimed to have found in Cuba. His name was Raymond Scott, and he appeared to be an eccentric businessman from northeast England. He agreed to leave the book with the Folger’s experts for a few days.

The book was damaged to say the least, its front and back covers removed, but it appeared to be a First Folio. Every copy of the First Folio is unique, and all are included in a census, first compiled in 1902 and continually updated; this census details every distinguishing feature of each individual Folio such as annotations, dimensions and paper quality, as well its location. As such, mutilated though it was, experts quickly worked out that this wasn’t a newly-discovered Folio, but a pre-recorded one known as ‘West 7’. This copy had been property of Durham University Library, before it was stolen ten years before.

The story she went on to tell was unexpected to say the least because, as it turned out, it was about Durham University.

In December 1998, seven books and manuscripts were stolen from Bishop Cosin’s library on Palace Green. Among them were an English translation of the New Testament, a first edition volume of Beowulf, a fragment of a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, and a First Folio.

Soon it became certain that Scott’s book was the stolen Durham copy, and the police began to take action. Raymond Scott had presented himself in Washington as an eccentric millionaire, wearing huge sunglasses, drinking champagne and staying in five-star hotels. However, the authorities were able to trace his phone number and discovered that he actually lived in Wingate – less than ten miles from Durham – with his elderly mother, and his only income was unemployment benefits. The initial impression of an extravagant millionaire with a fondness for rare books and Don Perignon was starting to unravel.

Scott claimed that he had found the Folio in Cuba, where he said he lived from 2007 to 2008. There he met a young dancer called Heidy, to whom he became engaged – apparently this ‘old English book’ had been in her family’s possession for over a hundred years. In May 2008, he said, they took the book to Cuba’s national library in Havana to be examined, and began to suspect it might be a First Folio. Police proved that, during the time he claimed to be in Cuba, Scott was actually in the UK, using CCTV footage from shopping centres in Gateshead, London and Sunderland. Scott claimed he then travelled from Havana to Washington D. C. to have the book examined at the Folger, but in fact he flew from Heathrow.

It transpired that Scott, still infatuated with his Cuban fiancée, had been sending thousands of pounds to her at a time. By the time police spoke to him, Scott had accrued about £90,000 in credit card debt. The police concluded Scott had sought to sell the Folio in an attempt to solve his financial troubles.

On 16th June 2010, two years after he had brought the Durham Folio into the Folger, Scott was found guilty of handling stolen goods, though cleared of charges of theft – he had pleaded not guilty to both charges. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. On 14th March 2012, two years into his sentence, he committed suicide, aged 55.

Scott once stated that he had stolen the books himself

The original thief of the Folio (and all the other texts), remains uncertain, though Scott once stated that he had stolen the books himself. From 2008-10, writer Mike Kelly interviewed Scott for his book about the case, Shakespeare & Love. In the last week of his trial in 2010, Scott told Kelly “You know I did it, don’t you?”

Durham’s First Folio is (decade-long absence aside) the only one known to have stayed in the same personal library since it was first purchased. John Cosin, who became Bishop of Durham in 1660, probably bought it new because the book used to bear the shelfmark of Peterhouse, Cambridge, the College of which Cosin was Master before taking up his post at Durham. Prior to its theft, Durham’s copy had been valued at £3 million but, due to the damage sustained while it was missing, is now valued at £1.5 million.

In July 2010, the Durham Folio came home to Palace Green Library

In July 2010, the Durham Folio came home to Palace Green Library, and was displayed in an open treasure exhibition in January 2011. The other stolen texts have still not been found. The story of Durham’s First Folio has attracted interest from the worlds of crime, antiques dealing and English literature alike, and remains something of a legend among staff at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Image: Matt Riches via Unsplash

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