1640 psalm book could fetch $30M at NYC auction
New York • A tiny book of psalms from 1640 — believed to be the first book ever printed in what is now the United States — is poised to set an auction record for a printed book on Tuesday.
The Bay Psalm Book going on the auction block at Sotheby’s has a pre-sale estimate of $15 million to $30 million. A copy of John James Audubon’s "Birds of America," which currently holds the record, sold for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2010.
Only 11 copies of the Bay Psalm Book survive in varying degrees of completeness. The one being offered at Sotheby’s is one of two owned by Boston’s Old South Church, which voted to sell it to increase its grants and ministries.
"It’s a spectacular book, arguably one of the most important books in this nation’s history," the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister and CEO of the church, said in April. Samuel Adams was a member and Benjamin Franklin was baptized at the church, which was established in 1669.
At one time, the church owned five copies of the 6-by-5-inch book. One is now at the Library of Congress, another at Yale University and a third at Brown University.
If bidding surpasses $30 million, the Bay Psalm Book could set an auction record for any book. The Leonardo da Vinci Codex Hammer, a personal notebook of scientific writings and diagrams, sold for $30.8 million at Christie’s in 1994.
The book was published in Cambridge, Mass., by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It came just 20 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.
The book was supposed to be a faithful translation into English of the original Hebrew psalms — puritans believed selected paraphrases would compromise their salvation. The 1,700 copies were printed on a press shipped over from London.
A yellowed title page, adorned with decorative flourishes, reads: "The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated into English Metre." At the bottom, it says: "Imprinted 1640."
Historians believe an almanac may have come off the press before the Bay Psalm Book. But Mark Dimunation, chief of rare books and special collections at the Library of Congress, has said the almanac was more of a pamphlet or a broadsheet rather than a book. No copy of the almanac exists today. He noted that in the Americas, in general, books were printed in what is now Mexico as early as 1539.
"American poetry, American spirituality and the printed page all kind of combine and find themselves located in a single volume," Dimunation said of the Bay Psalm Book.
The last time a copy came on the auction block, in 1947, it sold for a record auction price of $151,000. At the time, it surpassed auction prices for the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio and Audubon’s "Birds of America."