NEW YORK – The first book printed in what is today the United States sold for $14 million at auction in New York on Tuesday, becoming the world’s most expensive printed book.
A translation of Biblical psalms, the “Bay Psalm Book” was printed by Puritan settlers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640 and sold at a one-lot auction in just minutes by Sotheby’s.
Bidding opened at $6 million and closed swiftly at a hammer price of $12.5 million, rising to $14.165 million once the buyer’s premium was incorporated.
The book, with its browning pages and gilt edges, was displayed in a glass case behind the auctioneer to a relatively small crowd who attended the less than five-minute auction in person.
The settlers, who came to America to seek religious freedom, had set about making their own preferred translation from the Hebrew original of the Old Testament book after arriving from Europe.
Sotheby’s named the buyer as David Rubenstein, the billionaire American financier and philanthropist. He was in Australia and his bid was conducted by telephone.
Sotheby’s had valued the book at $15 million to $30 million, but denied any disappointment in the sale price reached Tuesday.
David Redden, auctioneer and head of Sotheby’s books said $14.165 million “represents a new world record for any printed book.”
The previous record was $11.5 million, reached when a copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” sold at Sotheby’s in December 2010.
Rubenstein plans to share the psalm book with the American public by loaning it to a number of libraries around the country and placing it on long-time loan to one of them, Redden said.
“We’re very very pleased about this purchase. If you recall David Rubenstein also brought the Magna Carta from us back in 2007 for the same reason, to make sure Americans would understand the significance of their heritage,” he added.
“We greatly appreciate his interest in the sale,” Redden said.
The Magna Carta sold for $21.3 million in New York. It was one of only 17 existing copies of the 800-year-old English royal manuscript setting out the rights of man.
Redden said the “Bay Psalm Book” was a “great rarity” and that only two of 11 surviving copies had come to sale in the last 100 years.
He described the price as “very strong and hefty.”
“It’s very important because of its story. It’s the first book printed in America and the first book written in America,” Redden told reporters.
Before the sale, Redden said the volume had even greater significance as a precursor to Lexington and Concord, and, ultimately, to American political independence.
“With it, New England declared its independence from the Church of England,” he said.
There were 1,700 copies of the original 1640 edition. The eleven that have survived are in collections such as The Library of Congress in New York and Harvard College Library.
No copy had previously been auctioned since 1947, when a different copy fetched $151,000 — a record at the time for any book, including the Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare’s First Folio.
The book was sold by the Old South Church in Boston to benefit its work in the historic city. The same church possesses another copy of the “Bay Psalm Book.”
Selby Kiffer, from Sotheby’s special projects department, called it “not simply one of the great icons of book history, it is one of the greatest artifacts of American history.”