Old South Church’s Bay Psalm Book Sold For $14 Million At Auction
The sale of the most expensive piece of printed literature—as well as one of the oldest—is now in the books.
On Tuesday, the auction company Sotheby’s, in New York City, sold off “The Bay Psalm Book” for $14.1 million, including the buyer’s premium— roughly half of what the company expected it could fetch once put out to bid.
The Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony printed the book, translated from Hebrew, in Cambridge in the late 1600s, after arriving in what’s now the U.S. According to the Harvard Library’s website:
The first printing press in what would become the United States of America set sail for Boston Harbor in 1638 with the Rev. Joseph Glover and his family on board. Joseph died on the journey; his widow Elizabeth and Stephen Day, an indentured locksmith, established the press on what is now Holyoke Street in Harvard Square. The press produced the first book printed in America, the Bay Psalm Book.
More than 1,700 versions of the book were rolled out at the time, but only 11 are still around to this day. Harvard’s Houghton Library has one of the copies, which was donated to the school in October 1764, soon after a fire destroyed Harvard Hall and, with it, most of Harvard’s library books. Middlecott Cooke, a graduate of the Harvard Class of 1723.
The book that was sold at auction, however, was the property of Boston’s Old South Church, and set the world record as the most expensive printed book ever sold, knocking out a copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” which went on the auction block, through Sotheby’s, in 2011, and sold for just over $11 million.
The church reports that the record-setting auction sale was made by American businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein, “who plans to share it with the American public by loaning it to libraries across the country, before putting it on long-term loan at one of them.”
In March, Nancy Taylor, Senior Minister and CEO of the Old South Church, said the congregation was putting one of their two copies of the Psalms up for sale to monetize some of their assets for “the sake of our future” after running into some financial hardships.
“No organization—and no church—will survive over the long term if it fails to make adjustments at critical junctures,” she said.
After employing strategies to put them on “a path to financial sustainability,” the church was still coming up short, and had to make a drastic choice. That’s when over 300 members of Old South Church gathered together and voted in favor of selling the book, after several meetings, testimonials, and debates, in order to help keep the congregation’s mission moving forward. “The members voted in overwhelming numbers to transform treasures into ministry,” Taylor said at the time.
After the sale on Tuesday, Taylor said the Old South Church has millions of reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving. “We have re-acquainted America with this amazing book and its extraordinary story. And, we have turned it into fuel for our ministries – from homelessness to housing, from youth violence prevention to elder care, from food insecurity to public education. We are delighted,” she said.
According to Sotheby’s the book was in fair condition, with “some browning throughout, occasional minor marginal chips or tears, a few tiny scattered ink-holes,” however, that’s to be expected when a piece of literature is more than 400 years old. Other copies of the book can be found at The Library of Congress, The New York Public Library, and Yale University Library.