Thursday - 11 February 2016

Will this be the world’s most expensive book?

22 April 2013Written by Ian McKay

Familiarly known as the Bay Psalm Book, one of the finest surviving copies of the first book printed in what is now the USA is expected to become the world’s most expensive book at Sotheby’s New York in November.

Congregationalist Puritans who had emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony in search of religious freedom wanted a Book of Psalms closer to the Hebrew original than the one they had brought from England, and such prominent figures as John Cotton, Richard Mather and John Eliot were among those who worked on a new metrical translation.

Funds were raised in England and Holland for a printing press, types, etc. by the Rev. James Glover, who also hired Stephen Daye, a locksmith whose 18-year-old son was an apprentice printer. Glover died on the voyage out but Daye and his family set up the press and, probably after producing some now lost ephemeral work, printed 1700 copies of the Bay Psalm Book in 1640.

Just 11 complete examples survive of that first edition, which was utilitarian and in constant use. This is one of the two currently retained by the Old South Church in Boston and the only one previously seen at auction is one they sold at Parke Bernet in 1947 for a record-shattering $151,000 - a price put in context by the $22,000 paid for a First Folio Shakespeare and £2700 for a Birds of America in that same auction season.

Historical Importance

Selby Kiffer of Sotheby's has called the Bay Psalm Book "one of the greatest artifacts of American history" and David Redden, worldwide chairman of their book departments, cites it as a forerunner to American independence.

The current record for any printed book stands at £6.5m ($11.5m) paid at Sotheby's London in 2010 for an Audubon Birds of America - though some might argue that is essentially a print collection. A Shakespeare record was set at $5.6m at Christie's New York in 2001 and back in 1987, the ex-Dyson-Perrins/Doheny copy of the first volume only of the Gutenberg Bible sold at $4.9m.

All those sums will pale in comparison if the Bay Psalm Book achieves anything in the $15m-30m range suggested by Sotheby's. It will be sold in the week preceding Thanksgiving after a 20-city US promotional tour. 

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