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Psalm book sets £8.1m auction record for a printed book

29 November 2013Written by ATG Reporter

The most expensive printed book sold at auction will go on display to the public after the buyer pledged to lend it to libraries across the US before putting it on permanent loan at one of them.

A new record was set when American businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein paid $12.5m (£8.1m) at Sotheby's New York on November 26 for the Bay Psalm Book - the first printed book in what is now the USA.

Although the hammer price did not hit the heights of a $15m-30m estimate, it did climb past the previous £6.5m record for a printed book record set by an Audubon Birds of America in 2010 (though some might argue that was essentially a print collection).

Historical Background

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.

The buyer's premium at Sotheby's was 25/20/12%

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