Bay Psalm Book auction raises $13.1 million for Boston's Old South Church
Written by Emily Schappacher
December 2, 2013

As the Rev. Nancy Taylor said, her congregation has "many millions of reasons to give thanks." Old South Church in Boston United Church of Christ will receive more than $13 million after its copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America, sold for the highest price ever recorded for a print book in an open sale.

The historic psalm book sold for $14.2 million (a bid of $12.5 million plus fees) during an auction at Sotheby's in New York City on Nov. 26. That sale exceeds the previous record of $11.5 million paid for John James Audubon's "Birds of America," in 2010.

"We are blessed," said Taylor, senior pastor and CEO of Old South Church. "After all the calculations are done, Old South Church in Boston will realize $13.1 million. That's $13.1 million to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the shivering, companion the lonely, comfort the grieving, visit the prisoner, pursue peace, and work for justice." 

Australian private equity fund founder and philanthropist David Rubenstein purchased the book after just two-and-a-half minutes of concerted bidding. Sotheby's reports that Rubenstein, a well-known antiquities buyer and donator, intends to lend the book to libraries around the country and eventually place it on long-term loan to one of them. Rubenstein, whose worth is estimated at $2.5 billion, has reportedly given away tens of millions in philanthropy, and has purchased other historic documents such as the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation and loaned them to the federal government.

In December 2012, Old South Church members voted in favor of selling the hymnal, as well as a collection of Colonial-era silver, to benefit the church's future. The congregation reached the decision after years of conversations, deliberations, presentations and discernment, Taylor said, adding that the decision aligns with the church's Vision for the 21st Century plan adopted in 2010. Old South Church possessed two of the 11 known remaining copies of the Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, and decided to keep the other one. Several years ago, the church had that copy digitized and made it available on the church's website. In addition, Sotheby's auction house introduced a Bay Psalm Book app for smart phones that can be downloaded for free.

"With this app you can read a psalm a day – or two or three or 150 – with the precise, idiosyncratic spelling and in the actual rhyming English meter translated, composed and printed on this soil in 1640 by our pious and bookish forbears," Taylor said.

The last known Bay Psalm Book appeared at a Sotheby's auction in 1947 and sold for $151,000, a record auction price for any printed book at the time. The copy from Old South Church was on view at Sotheby's New York City galleries in April before embarking on a traveling exhibition to nine cities including Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas.

"We introduced America and the world to the Bay Psalm Book and its extraordinary story," Taylor said. "So much more than a book, in this modest treasure lies the tale of an early and defiant declaration of independence from England, religious imagination, entrepreneurial fortitude and scholarly achievement." 

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Ms. Emily Schappacher
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