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Beyond the Basics

The Mystique of the Bay Psalm Book

This first American imprint will make an exceedingly rare appearance at auction this year, and when it does, it is expected to break the existing record for printed books. By Joel Silver Joel Silver is Director and Curator of Books at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

In December 2012, the members of Boston’s Old South Church voted 271-34 in favor of selling this second, or “Beta copy,” of the Bay Psalm Book that belongs to the church. Sotheby’s recently announced that it will handle the sale of the book. The auction will be held in New York on November 26, 2013. Experts believe that it will fetch as much as $20 million. Courtesy of the Old South Church.
This image of the Old South Church’s “Beta copy” shows manuscript notations on the title page verso. Courtesy of the Old South Church.
This image of the Old South Church’s “Beta copy” shows the bookplate from the Thomas Prince Library. Courtesy of the Old South Church.

It’s not a beautiful book, except to those who recognize it and understand its importance. It’s been called “The Gutenberg Bible of America,” but its small size and drab appearance bear little physical resemblance to the rubricated and decorated double-column leaves of the Gutenberg Bible. But The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, more commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, survives in far fewer copies than does the Gutenberg Bible, and it’s much rarer on the market than its earlier counterpart. While three copies of the Gutenberg Bible were available for sale as recently as the late 1970s, the Bay Psalm Book hasn’t appeared at auction since 1947, when it brought the unexpectedly high price of $151,000. For comparison, the Shuckburgh copy of the Gutenberg Bible was sold by the Scribner Book Store to Arthur A. Houghton for $200,000 in 1953, and in 1978, this copy was sold by H. P. Kraus to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz for DM 3,700,000 (approximately $1.84 million). Though there are more than fifty copies of the Gutenberg Bible that are known to exist, there are only eleven known copies of the Bay Psalm Book that survive, and all of them are in institutional collections, with no copies remaining in private hands. Since 1947, the Bay Psalm Book has been thought of as a landmark book that was once available to a few fortunate collectors of the past, but one that was denied to any modern-day Henry E. Huntington who might have dreamed of owning a copy.

Until now. In a highly publicized and somewhat controversial vote of its members, the Old South Church of Boston, the owner of two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, voted in December 2012 to sell one. It’s expected that sometime this year, this copy, which, like the Old South Church’s other copy of the book, has been kept at the Boston Public Library, will be sold at auction to the highest bidder. Estimates of the anticipated sale price will range widely in the many millions of dollars, but like all sales of antiques and works of art, the final price will depend on the state of the financial markets around the time of the auction, and the level of interest and persistence among the wealthy buyers who will compete with each other for the book.

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