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November 27, 2013

1640 psalm book brings $14.2M

NEW YORK — A tiny book of psalms from 1640 — believed to be the first book ever printed in what is now the United States — sold yesterday for $14.2 million, setting an auction record for a printed book.

The book sold at Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan last night was one of two copies held by Boston’s Old South Church.

The Bay Psalm Book had a pre-sale estimate of $15 million to $30 million. A copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” which previously held the record, sold for $11.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2010.

Only 11 copies of the Bay Psalm Book survive in varying degrees of completeness. The one being offered at Sotheby’s is one of two owned by Boston’s Old South Church, which voted to sell it to increase its grants and ministries.

“It’s a spectacular book, arguably one of the most important books in this nation’s history,” the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister and CEO of the church, said in April. Samuel Adams was a member and Benjamin Franklin was baptized at the church, which was established in 1669.

At one time, the church owned five copies of the 6-by-5-inch book. One is now at the Library of Congress, another at Yale University and a third at Brown University.

The book was published in Cambridge, Mass., by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It came just 20 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.

The book was supposed to be a faithful translation into English of the original Hebrew psalms — puritans believed selected paraphrases would compromise their salvation. The 1,700 copies were printed on a press shipped over from London.

A yellowed title page, adorned with decorative flourishes, reads: “The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated into English Metre.” At the bottom, it says: “Imprinted 1640.”

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