December 6, 2013

​‘Crown jewel’ of American Printing Fetches $14.2 Million at Auction

 ©2013 Religion News Service

On a dark, damp and expensive Tuesday night at
Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan, one of the 11 surviving copies of the Bay
Psalm Book, the first book (and the first book of Scripture) printed in English
in America, was sold for the highest price ever recorded for a print book in
open sale.

The $14.2 million price (a bid of $12.5 million,
plus fees) exceeded by more than a million dollars the $11.5 million paid for
the previous record-holder, John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” in 2010.

The psalm book’s new owner is the private equity
fund founder and philanthropist David Rubenstein, who called in his bid from
Australia. According to Sotheby’s auctioneer David Redden, who gaveled down the
sale in two and a half minutes of concerted bidding, Rubenstein, a well-known
antiquities buyer and donator, intends to lend the ancient Puritan hymnal to
libraries around the country, eventually putting it on long-term loan to one of

The buyer of the Bay Psalter (its full title is
“The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated into English Metre,”) wasn’t
present in the hall, but the seller was.

The Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister and CEO of
Old South Church in Boston, stood smiling next to the 4-inch-by-7-inch psalm
book, which was nestled in velvet in a tall rectangular case.

“It’s fantastic,” she said. “We’re just
delighted. This means the world to us in terms of the continuation and the
building up of our ministries in Boston.”

Though the world record price was on the low end
of estimates by Sotheby’s, which had suggested the psalter could go for $30
million, Taylor said, “In the rarefied world of some people this may not be
much, but for a church, this is huge. It’s going to make all the difference in
the world. ”

Rubenstein, a co-founder of the private equity
firm the Carlyle Group, whose worth Forbes has estimated at $2.5 billion, has
given away tens of millions, if not more, in philanthropy, and is famous for
buying important copies of iconic documents such as the Magna Carta, the
Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation and loaning them
to branches of the federal government.

He is also a large benefactor for Duke
University, which renamed its special collections the David M. Rubenstein Rare
Book & Manuscript Library.

Rubenstein edged out a $12 million dollar pre-set
bid by Steve Green of Oklahoma City. Green had already been in the news once on
Tuesday. He is scion of the billionaire Green family, owners of the 500-store
Hobby Lobby chain. Seven hours before the auction, the Supreme Court agreed to
hear a corporate religious-freedom challenge the company has brought
against President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The Greens had been bidding on the Bay Psalm Book
in hopes of including it in a biblical museum the family plans to build just
off the Washington Mall in early 2017.

“It’s been an interesting day,” Green said after
the sale. “We’ve been in the news. It’s disappointing that we didn’t get the
Bay Psalm Book, but it was kind of secondary to the news from the court.”

The Bay Psalm Book has been referred to as “a
crown jewel” and “the icon of American printing.” It is also a landmark in
American faith, or one of its strongest colonial strains. Like all good
Calvinists of the time, the Bay Colony Puritans revered the entire Bible — but
after the sermon, the most important part of every church service was unison
psalm singing. Since the colony was a theocracy, that meant hymnals for all its
citizens. Their first run was about 1,700 copies.