One of the greatest artifacts of American history, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, will be auctioned at 7pm on the 26th day of this month at Sotheby’s in New York. The 6-by-5-inch hymnal book’s estimated value was raised by 10 million dollars since the end of last year when we first ran a feature on the sale.
The book was produced in the year 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Congregationalist Puritan, locksmith Stephen Daye, and while it does not have the printer’s name on the title page, Daye is nevertheless credited as the first printer of the first book printed in the English colonies of America. Lacking proper punctuation and spelling in a loose translation of the original Hebrew into English Metre, it is believed to have been the combined effort of thirty colonial ministers, who desired a metrical translation of the Psalms to be the standard psalter for the Massachusetts Bay area.
The Old South Church of Boston owns two copies of what is considered to be one of the oldest and rarest psalm books of historic importance. Inside the book, such famous church members as Ben Franklin and Samuel Adams are listed. Currently facing financial constraints, the church members voted overwhelmingly in favor of the notion to sell one of the two copies the church owns, in order to continue to support its activities and repair some damages to its building. Certainly having two of the 11 surviving copies from an edition of 1700 copies has made their decision much easier.
Besides these two copies, the first recorded transaction of the book exchanging hands was in 1864 when collector George Brinley bought the book from the dealer Henry Stevens for one thousand US dollars. This copy of the book is now owned by the Beinecke Library at Yale, purchased at auction in 1947 for the then record auction price of $151,000. It marked the highest price ever paid for a printed book, and the last public trade of a copy of the Bay Psalm Book. Another copy owned by a private collector was donated to the Library of Congress in 1955, and yet another is safely stored inside a box at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in Rhode Island.
While the current Sotheby’s estimated value of $20 to $30 million dollars may seem quite ambitious, the last known sale of the Bay Psalm Book in 1947 surpassed auction sale prices for comparables such as the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio and John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.” The latter currently holding the title of the most expensive sale in book history with $11.5m paid at the end of 2010. A few years earlier in 2006, a rare complete copy of the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays sold for £2.8m at another Sotheby’s auction event. Going back even further, in 1987, a complete copy of the Latin Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg & Fust in Mainz, sold for $5.4m.
There is no doubt that if the price attained by the Bay Psalm Book later on this month is close to the high estimate of $30m, the impact on antiquarian books will be tremendous. Valuations for some of the market high spots will undoubtedly receive a boost. The highest price paid for a book will no longer be for an oversized art book, but rather, it will be for a 6-by-5-inch religious book with historical importance instead. The genre of religion and, more precisely, religious books with liturgical text, will be positively affected. Books of historical importance that are surviving today will also see an immediate boost in value. But, more importantly, antiquarian books in general will place their stake higher towards the high end of the collectibles marketplace.