The nearly 400-year-old book is one of 19 copies of the 1611 printing known to exist and is the only one remaining in private hands. It was owned by Mary Hyde, Viscountess Eccles, a New Jersey book collector and English literature scholar best known for her extensive Samuel Johnson collection, now at the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
Christie's auction house had estimated its worth at between $1.5 million and $2 million. But bidding began at $900,000 and stalled at $1.2 million, which was shy of the seller's confidential reserve, or minimum price.
Lady Eccles, who was among the first women admitted to the bibliophile Grolier Club in New York, was 91 when she died in August. Her Samuel Johnson collection and other books in her collection were pledged to institutions, including Harvard. The remainder was auctioned Wednesday, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting her many philanthropic interests.
The "Hamlet" work being auctioned was the second edition of that play and third printing overall, and the last edition of "Hamlet" printed while Shakespeare was still alive.
The First Quarto, published in 1603, was apparently printed without Shakespeare's permission and contained errors; a later collection of his works, the First Folio, was published posthumously in 1623.