The Grand Ballroom at the Hotel Northampton was abuzz with excitement. Antiquarian booksellers and private collectors perused hundreds of rare items displayed on long tables in final preparation for the evening’s auction, picking up leatherbound books, laminated broadsides, old, flimsy chapbooks, and other ephemera.
Items to be auctioned that evening included a broadside of a verse called “The Happy Child,” dated to the early 18th century; an autograph album containing the signatures of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Daniel Webster, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, Artemus Ward, and others; and a copy of the Bible, written in Greek, from around 12th century.
But the big draw of the evening, if not of the entire year, was displayed by itself in the center of the room next to the auctioneer’s podium: Lot 276, the Silver-Mathews Fourth Folio Shakespeare, described as “the fourth edition of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies,” and “the last of the 17th-century editions of Shakespeare’s collected works.”
Bidding for many of the 321 items up for auction that evening began at a relatively sober $50, though several items sold for hundreds, or thousands of dollars. But the opening bid for The Shakespeare was set at $62,000, and many of the Valley’s antiquarian booksellers told me they wouldn’t be surprised if it fetched six figures.
“I love my job,” Paul Muller-Reed said. He auctions items twice a month at the Hotel Northampton. “But this,” he nodded to the podium, “is the hardest part.”
With only a few minutes remaining before the auction, most of the 50 or so buyers had already found seats in the rows of chairs that filled up half of the ballroom. Another 50 buyers would phone in their bids from as far away as the United Kingdom. A few of the attendees sipped glasses of red wine or pints of beer. Others sat next to cardboard boxes waiting to be filled with the bounty of their successful bids. Over half the bidders were fellow booksellers, hoping to acquire antiques at a good price that they could then sell at a profit. Others were private collectors. Several represented libraries. Many of the attendees talked jovially amongst themselves. Others waited in hushed anticipation.