Bay Psalm Book sells for record $14.2 million in New York auction

The translation of the biblical psalms, the Bay Psalm Book, is seen at Sotheby's in New York. The book was printed by Puritan settlers in Cambridge, Mass., in 1640.
The translation of the biblical psalms, the Bay Psalm Book, is seen at Sotheby’s in New York. The book was printed by Puritan settlers in Cambridge, Mass., in 1640.
(Timothy Clary / AFP/Getty Images)

Those people who argue that print is dead just don’t understand the business model. A tiny book of psalms, printed in Colonial America in 1640 -- when digital referred to nothing more than fingers and toes -- has been sold for about $14.2 million, a record.

The Bay Psalm Book, believed to be the first book published in what became the United States, was sold on Tuesday at Sotheby’s in Manhattan. The book, one of 11 copies that have survived in various conditions, had been expected to draw bids of $15 million to $30 million.

Even though it came in slightly below some expectations, the book surpassed the previous record holder: A copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” sold for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2010.


Time seems to be one crucial criterion for measuring value in the universe of print. In the modern electron-driven universe, speed and uniqueness seem to define value. Rare books, however, operate on a more laid-back measurement of time: duration, rather than immediacy.

The Bay Psalm Book was published in Cambridge, Mass., by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony about two decades after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.

In general, Puritans fled to the New World to avoid the domination of the Church of England and some of its practices that the Puritans considered to be too close to the Roman Catholic Church tradition. Puritans were generally more austere in their actions and their book of psalms was supposed to be a more faithful rendition from the Hebrew of the psalms.

About 1,700 copies were printed.

The book was one of two owned by Boston’s Old South Church, established in 1669, and the congregation decided to sell it to increase its grants and ministries. The church had owned five copies of the 6-by-5-inch book. One is now at the Library of Congress, one is at Yale University and one is at Brown University.

“This is enormous for us,” the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of the church, told the Associated Press. “It is life-changing for the ministries we can do.”

The book was bought over the phone by American businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein, who said he plans to lend it to libraries around the country. The sale price included the buyer’s premium.


The last time a copy of the Bay Psalm Book came on the auction block, it sold for a record auction price of $151,000 in 1947. That was more than auction prices at the time for the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio and “Birds of America.”

The auction record for any book is held by Leonardo da Vinci Codex Hammer, a notebook of scientific writings and diagrams, which sold for $30.8 million at Christie’s auction house in 1994.


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