Rare ‘Frankenstein’ novel sells for record-breaking $1.17 million (£850,000)

An exceptionally rare first edition of Mary Shelley’s (1797-1851) ‘Frankenstein’ has sold for a monstrous $1.17 million (£850,000) at Christie’s, New York. The three-volume set is now the most expensive printed work by a woman ever sold at auction.

Since hailed as a groundbreaking Gothic novel, ‘Frankenstein’ was written in 1816 during a trip to Lake Geneva. Shelley competed to compose the most compelling ghost story against her soon-to-be husband, poet Percy Shelley (1792-1822), and their friend, the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824).

I busied myself to think of a story,” Shelley later recalled. “[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.” After enduring an “acute mental vision”, Shelley had created her protagonists; the scientist Victor Frankenstein, a man obsessed with creating life from death, and his monster.

With only 500 copies printed in 1818, the first editions have rarely appeared at auction – the last time was in 1985. This edition also retains the original nineteenth-century pasteboards that cover each volume, making it extremely fragile. These disposable, now highly desirable, coverings were used to bind books, with the expectation that the new owners would eventually replace them.

Clearly the interest for rare antique books remains strong today, with Monday’s auction result far surpassing the lot’s pre-sale estimate of $200,000 to $300,000 (£146,000 to £219,000). Bidders from a whopping 14 countries and 6 continents participated in the sale. The hammer price also eclipsed the previous world record for a printed work by a woman, which was set in 2008 when Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) 1816 novel ‘Emma’ sold for around $205,000 (£150,000).

Shelley’s 1818 edition of ‘Frankenstein’ featured within Christie’s sale of exceptional antiquarian books from the collection of Theodore B. Baum (1935-2021). Other rare novels sold included copies of Bram Stoker’s (1847-1912) Dracula (1897), Virginia Woolf’s (1882-1941) Night and Day (1919) and James Joyce’s (1882-1941) Dubliners (1914). Surpassing the pre-sale high estimate, Baum’s collection achieved more than $9.6 million (£7 million) across two live sales.

Heather Weintraub, Christie’s Books and Manuscripts Specialist and Head of Sale, remarked “it was a privilege working with the exceptional library of Theodore Baum, and we are delighted by the outstanding results. The sale attracted bidders and buyers from around the world and showed that the market is strong for such fine examples of literary high spots.”

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