Colonial book of Psalms fetches $14.2 million

Bay Psalm Book

A Colonial-era tome, auctioned last week in New York, easily set a new record as the world’s most expensive printed book.

A first-edition copy of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $14.2 million, breaking the previous mark of $11.5 million, set in 2010, when a copy of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” was auctioned.

The Bay Psalm Book, one of 11 surviving examples, was sold by Boston’s famed Old South Church.

The Church sold the Bay Psalm Book from its collection to cover the cost of building repairs and to fund future endeavors after taking a vote of its congregants in 2012, according to a statement issued by its senior minister, Nancy Taylor.

The book is one of two copies owned by the church, which dates to 1669.

The Bay Psalm Book is one of the rarest books in the world and among the finest surviving copies of original 1,700 that were printed, according to Reuters.

The Bay Psalm Book was published in Cambridge, Mass., by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The book was meant to be a faithful translation into English of the original Hebrew psalms, according to the BBC.

The last time a copy was sold was in 1947, when it fetched a then-record price of $151,000, Reuters reported.

Boston's Old South Church. The current structure dates to the 1870s, but the congregation was begun in 1669.

Boston’s Old South Church. The current structure dates to the 1870s, but the congregation was begun in 1669.

The most recent purchase was made by American businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein. He is an executive with the US private equity firm Carlyle Group LP.

Rubenstein plans to loan it to libraries across the United States, before it will be put on long-term loan to one of them, according to Sotheby’s.

The price the Bay Psalm Book fetched is still far short of that of the most expensive book ever: A handwritten Leonardo da Vinci notebook sold for $30.8 million in 1994.

The decision by Old South Church to sell one of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book was not an easy one, but it isn’t the first time the church has faced difficult decisions.

Taylor cited the church’s decision to move from downtown Boston to the Back Bay section of the city in the 1870s.

That move involved leaving a structure that had hosted Boston Tea Party meetings, was the site upon which Benjamin Franklin had been baptized and where Phillis Wheatley had been welcomed into church membership, and also where the church’s 15th minister had opened the structure as a recruiting station for the Union army during the War Between the States.

“No organization – and no church – will survive over the long term if it fails to make adjustments at critical junctures,” Taylor said in a statement issued earlier this year. “Old South Church’s forebears bequeathed to us a legacy of such prescient tactical adjustments.”

The other nine copies of the Bay Psalm Book are prized items in major collections or libraries.

The book’s rarity is partly due to age and partly due to usefulness.

After Stephen Day, an indentured servant and locksmith by trade, printed some 1,700 copies of the 300-page tome, it was immediately put into use by congregations across the Massachusetts Bay Colony, according to the BBC.

“Though the text was reprinted more than 50 times over the next century, most first edition books were worn out within decades,” it added.

“It’s a book that was not created to be fancy or splendid or valuable in any way other than the significance of its content,” said Derick Dreher, the director of Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library, one of the few institutions to hold a Bay Psalm Book. “But because the congregation for which it was created literally used the book to death, very few of the copies have survived.”

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11 thoughts on “Colonial book of Psalms fetches $14.2 million

  1. Interesting. My first thought was that some people have too much money and then I read about the intent of the purchaser which sounds ok.

    But, and there is a but here, of course. I’m all for preserving old buildings. So that’s not a problem. However 14 mill sounds a lot for building repairs so I’m wondering what the ‘future endeavours’ are?

    I guess what gripes is that someone pays that much for a book while we have starving homeless people. And I am the first who loves to see old manuscripts, visit old buildings, and supports heritage. Without knowing the full story, it’s hard to comment objectively.

    • I believe the church’s “future endeavors” include its outreach ministries. I’m a long way from New England, both geographically and chronologically, but many churches have a hard time these days with attendance, which makes it harder for them to support outreach programs. I’m actually rather impressed that they were willing to part with something like this, rather than just hold and slip silently into oblivion, like many antiquated institutions choose to do.

  2. If they are selling a material possession to help people in need, then good for them.
    On an offshoot, I have a few books from the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries.
    i love to read them…to touch the pages…to remember that the press was subject to censorship – as it has become again now…

    • I think the US has often been subject to censorship of one kind or another, whether we want to admit it. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 included a bill that restricted speech which was critical of the federal government; Lincoln closed down newspapers in the North that espoused pro-Southern views during the Civil War; and censorship laws were passed during World War I, to name just a few examples.

      I’d be curious to know the topics of your earliest books; it must be fascinating to be able to hold a work that is nearly more than 400 years old.

      • I had not heard of the Rye House Plot and just brought myself up to speed. Very interesting. Thanks for the tip.

        It occured to me after reading your comment that your remark about censorship may not have been directed specifically about the US. To that point, I would say that censorship is on the rise all around the world, unfortunately.

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