Mary Shelley Shattered Expectations

This original copy of Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously on January 1, 1818. It recently sold at auction for $1.17 million. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021

Each year at this time I check out the Rare Book Hub Top 500 prices paid at auction in the books and paper field for the previous year. In 2021 prices skyrocketed across the board. Here’s a link to the Top 500.  At the very top, the most expensive item sold for over $43 million, the highest ever for something in the collectible paper field. More amazing was the increase at #500, as this is more indicative of the high end of the field than one single item at the top. Number 500 sold for $119,700.

What really caught my attention from the 2021 list was the sale of a First Edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for an astonishing $1.17 million. The three-volume set broke the auction record for a printed work by a woman. The lot’s pre-sale estimate was $200,000 to $300,000. The previous world record for a printed work by a woman was set in 2008, when a first edition of Jane Austen’s 1816 novel Emma sold for around $205,000.

The record-breaking copy of Frankenstein is especially notewothy because it retains its original boards—the blueish gray pasteboards that cover each volume. Nineteenth-century publishers used these disposable coverings to bind and sell books, with the expectation that books’ new owners would eventually replace them with a permanent custom bindings.



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