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How This Copy of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ Became Worth $1.17 Million

By Emmie MurphyOct 26 2021
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An ambitious scientist, a quasi-human creation, murder, obsession, and destruction. The story of Frankenstein is world-renowned, a tale made from the stuff of nightmares that has become one of the most prominent literary works of all time, and a narrative apropos of the Halloween season.

As a novel, its importance lies in its intellectual merit and thematic explorations. It’s not only a spooky story, but also an investigation into the consequences of trying to play God and a rumination on how monsters are made. But these days, it’s not just the story that has become legend. This past September, a first edition of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece set a new world record for a printed work by a woman when it was auctioned off at Christie’s. The book, printed in 1818, sold for a stunning $1.17 million, smashing the record that was previously held by a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma.

The lot estimate was between $200,000-$300,000, and this sale not only surpassed that, but it also trounced it five times over, a nice surprise for the auction house. “We knew it was special,” explains Heather Weintraub, a specialist in Christie’s Books and Manuscripts department, “but part of the beauty and excitement of auction is that you never know exactly what will happen!”

The 2021 Christie’s Auction of Frankenstein

There were several factors at play in driving up the price. The book itself is exceptionally rare, one of only 500 first editions printed, and the first to come up for auction since 1985. A subsequent printing in 1831 included revisions to the narrative and the removal, per Shelley’s instruction, of an epigraph. Yet regardless of certain changes, a first edition is always a prized item for a collector. “The first edition of a work is usually more valuable, regardless of what happens with later editions,” explains Weintraub. “It is the way that the book was first made available to readers; holding a first edition in your hands can take you back to that moment in time when it first appeared. That is part of what makes owning one so appealing.”

For collectors, a first edition of a preeminent literary work is an incredibly attractive acquisition. Even rarer is one in such fine condition. What is special about this book is the preservation of its original boards, the covers that protect each volume. “The first edition in its original boards is incredibly fragile and as a result very scarce, so a copy like this, particularly in fine condition, is highly desirable to collectors.” It also doesn’t hurt that the market for rare books and manuscripts is strong at this moment. In 2020, a folio of Shakespeare’s works sold at auction for $10 million, and this past September, a presentation copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners fetched $400,000.

Why Mary Shelley Wrote Frankenstein

The story behind the story is intriguing as well. Shelley first began writing Frankenstein while on holiday at Lake Geneva with the man who would soon become her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend, Lord Byron. While waiting out a cold front, the writers launched a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story. “I busied myself to think of a story,” Shelley wrote in the introduction to the later edition, “… [o]ne which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.” If longevity is any indication of success, it seems Shelley won the contest.

The first edition was published by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, a London publishing house that printed 500 copies. Shelley chose to publish the work anonymously, not claiming the work as her own until four years later. In 1831, the revised edition — and the version known by most today — was published. Of those first 500 copies, no one can be sure how many others survive. Still, regardless of that total, this item maintains its value. “This is the finest copy extant in private hands,” says Weintraub.

Yet no matter how much the physical item yields at auction, it is the words on the page that truly matter. Hopefully, its new owner will heed its message.

Christie’s (20 Rockefeller Plaza) holds more than 450 auctions every year, spanning across fine art, wine, jewelry, furniture, fashion, collectibles, and memorabilia.

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