…And the world’s most expensive book sale in the history of book trades goes to the Bay Psalm Book owned by the Old South Church. It sold for 33 million US dollars to the auction’s high bidder: the new owner of the rare first book to be printed in America, billionaire collector of biblical books, manuscripts, and artifacts, Steve Green. There you have it; there is no need for further speculation. Our prediction is solid. No more agonizing over whether this copy of the Bay Psalm Book to be auctioned next week on the 26th at Sotheby’s will beat presale estimates and become the most expensive paper substance ever sold.
Our prediction is in fact quite rational. Another copy of this book broke the record once before in 1947, when it sold at yet another Sotheby’s auction for $151,000. That was the last time that a copy of the 11 surviving copies was traded. A premium price paid as its importance is well established. In 1991, the Old South Church parishioners quietly debated whether to sell one of the two copies from the Prince collection which was inherited when Thomas Prince died in 1758. At the time, the estimated value of the book stood between $1.5 million and $4 million. However, they opted to hold on to the treasure during that time. Last year at a meeting of the congregation, the discussion on the sale was revisited and the decision this time was to move forward with the sale of one of its two copies, which at that point was estimated to have a value between $15 million and $20 million. The Sotheby’s presale estimate was since then hiked to the current $20 million to $30 million. The current record sale of the most expensive paper substance traded was established in 1994 when Leonardo da Vinci’s journal, Codex Leicester, sold for $30.8 million. Within such price activity our high bid prediction of $33 million is quite reasonable and easily attainable.
The Green family has been aggressively buying all aspects of religious and spiritual life as part of a project to open a museum in Washington D.C. at the Washington Design Center on 300D St. Commenting on the choice of its location, Green said, “Being in D.C., government will be a big story. And America will be a big story to show the Bible’s impact on America and how it influenced the founding of this country.” There is no doubt that Green’s emphasis on Religious Americana in anticipation of the opening of the museum in March of 2017 is in perfect harmony with the auction’s offering. Not only is such a treasure a must-have in a museum centered on the story and impact of the Bible, but the story of the highest price ever paid for a book should go a long way in generating publicity for Green’s museum project.
Next week’s auction may have little to say about the state of the rare book marketplace. Whether it be close to our prediction or far from it, marketplace dynamics are already hard at work in the genre of Religion & Theology. Green’s acquisitions are already mobilizing rare book dealers and auction houses that deal in religious museum venue. Scarce religious and spiritual content high spots are quickly becoming scarcer. Pricing is expected to drift higher as results of increased demand are, in-turn, attracting dealers and individual collectors to enter the market on the supply side. While positioned in the center of the ripple effect is the Bible and associated content, the impact is spreading to related genre such as religious history, sacred literature, biblical archaeology, iconographic art and so forth. This is by no means a trend comparable to the institutional buying experienced during the second half of the last century. Institutions in general are still under the effect of large budget cuts, and most of the research material of interest is readily available on-line.