A tiny book of psalms from 1640, believed to be the first book printed in what’s now the United States, sold for just under $14.2 million on Tuesday, setting an auction record for a printed book.
The Bay Psalm Book, which was auctioned at Sotheby’s in Manhattan, had a pre-sale estimate of $15 million to $30 million. A copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” was the previous record-holder, selling for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2010.
Only 11 copies of the Bay Psalm Book survive in varying degrees of completeness. The book sold at Sotheby’s was one of two owned by Boston’s Old South Church, which voted to sell it to increase its grants and ministries. Samuel Adams was a member and Benjamin Franklin was baptized at the church, which was established in 1669.
“This is enormous for us,” said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of the church. “It is life-changing for the ministries we can do.”
The book was bought over the phone by American businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein, who plans to lend it to libraries around the country. The sale price included the buyer’s premium.
In April, Taylor called the book “spectacular” and said it is “arguably one of the most important books in this nation’s history.”
The church owned five copies of the 6-inch-by-5-inch book. One is now at the Library of Congress, one is at Yale University and one is at Brown University.
The book was published in Cambridge, Mass., by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony just 20 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.
It 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 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 the chief of rare books and special collections at the Library of Congress, Mark Dimunation, has said the almanac was more of a pamphlet or a broadsheet than a book. No copy of the almanac exists today. Dimunation 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, surpassing auction prices for the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio and “Birds of America.”
The auction record for any book goes to the Leonardo da Vinci Codex Hammer, a personal notebook of scientific writings and diagrams. It sold for $30.8 million at Christie’s auction house in 1994.