On a dark, damp and expensive Tuesday night at Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan, one of the 11 surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book (and the first book of Scripture) printed in English in America, was sold for the highest price ever recorded for a print book in open sale.
The $14.2 million price (a bid of $12.5 million, plus fees) exceeded by more than a million dollars the $11.5 million paid for the previous record-holder, John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” in 2010.
The psalm book’s new owner is the private equity fund founder and philanthropist David Rubenstein, who called in his bid from Australia. According to Sotheby’s auctioneer David Redden, who gaveled down the sale in two and a half minutes of concerted bidding, Rubenstein, a well-known antiquities buyer and donator, intends to lend the ancient Puritan hymnal to libraries around the country, eventually putting it on long-term loan to one of them.
Three hundred and seventy-three years ago, when the chief Puritan “divines” of the young Massachusetts Bay Colony printed their own translation of the Bible’s Book of Psalms, they prided themselves on importing the continent’s very first English printing press and establishing the colony as a cultural and educational center.
What they were certainly not anticipating — the little books sold for 20 pence apiece — was that next Tuesday, Sotheby’s will be auctioning off one of the 11 surviving copies of the Bay Psalter for between $10 and $30 million dollars. In that expected price range, it will be the most expensive book ever sold in public.
A Puritan might read this extraordinary markup as an example of God’s unknowable Providence. An economist might cite the laws of supply and demand. Either way, the blockbuster sale of “The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Meter” caps a fascinating seesaw act of American theology and marketplace. And depending on who wins the auction, it may say a bit more.