The surprise top lot in a New Year’s Day regional auction was not the Toyota Yaris (£6000) or the Rolex submariner watch (£6200) but a rather shabby-looking leather-bound volume which most bidders might not have given a second glance.
The book was one of over 1500 lots in a three-day general sale held by Unique Auctions (22% buyer’s premium) of Lincoln which included an eclectic assemblage of items ranging from a “4-Birth [sic] caravan” to Nazi cutlery.
The catalogue description accompanying a photograph of the book, which was missing pages including its title, simply stated: “An early 18th century Bible, some pages need attention but in fair condition for age.” It carried an estimate of just £20-30.
Soon after the catalogue was published online in late December the auction house knew that there was something more to the bible when it started to receive a large number of enquiries requesting additional information and photographs.
It became clear that although the general title-page and a number of preliminary pages were missing, the title-page for the New Testament in the middle of the volume was present and revealed the bible had been printed a century earlier than thought, in 1611. Further inspection of the text determined that not only was it a first edition of the authorised King James Bible, but it was a rare first issue known as the great “He” Bible due to the misprint “he went into the citie” instead of “she” in Ruth 3:15.
This large volume for use in churches was printed by the king’s printer, Robert Barker, at a substantial financial speculation. The expense left Barker in debt and undoubtedly contributed to his later financial woes, dying in a debtor’s prison in 1643.
This translation of the bible, which was the result of over five years’ work by 54 translators, is now recognised as one of the most influential books in the English language along with Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623).
In 1828 this English translation of the bible was described by Lord Macaulay as “a book, which if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power”.
Box of books
Unique Auctions’ valuer Darryl Kirk said that the bible had been purchased by a couple some years ago as part of a £10 box of books from a house clearance, and they had only recently rediscovered it and decided to sell.
Multiple pre-sale bids were placed via thesaleroom.com and bidding reached £9000 the day before the live auction. On the sale day there were several registered online bidders, two phone lines – including one from Texas – and a bidder who had travelled in person to bid.
The hammer came down at £13,000 to the room bidder; this was a good result for a King James bible in its condition, as copies were heavily used and it would now be almost impossible to buy a complete copy in a contemporary binding.
In 2023 a near-complete copy sold at Freeman’s of Philadelphia for a premium-inclusive price of $88,200 (about £69,000) and another at California firm PBA Galleries realised $21,250 (c.£16,500).
The auction record for a King James “He” Bible was set in 2016 at Sotheby’s New York for the Louis Silver copy, which is the tallest known copy. This bible originally belonged to Sir George More (1553-1632), a friend of James I, and a prominent figure in the king’s household, and sold in 2016 for $396,500, including premium, a price which may take some time to beat.