More words have been written about this book than there are words in the book. It had a courageous start as The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Metre. Over time, while its moniker shortened to The Bay Psalm Book, its reputation and stature increased. Within the rarified world of the exceptionally important it is for early American books what “the Babe” is for baseball aficionados: mythical, mystical. This is the first book printed in British North America.
Here is how the Library of Congress describes it. “Known as The Bay Psalm Book, but really titled The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, it represents what was most sacred to the Puritans--a faithful translation of God's Word, to be sung in worship by the entire congregation. Other Protestant denominations relied on selected paraphrases of the Scripture, but the Puritans believed this could compromise their salvation. The same faith that compelled them to leave England and strike out for the New World prompted them to commit this text to print before all others.”
The most recent copy at auction came up in 1947 and was the subject of dispute. Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, the exceptional book dealer with a commitment from Yale for $105,000, in the heat of battle at Park-Bernet went all the way to $151,000 to buy it, then had to raise additional money to pay for it when Yale balked. That copy stands today as one of the great gems in the Beinecke Collection and as a reminder that the greatest booksellers know their books well and the future even better. Rosenbach, in exceeding Yale’s instructions, made the right decision but it would take a year or so for the field to recognize what he instinctively knew: the very best must be acquired when it is possible. Who handles the bids in the upcoming sale will be equally important. People with the money to buy greatly outnumber the rarified community with the courage to do so. History says the buyer will treasure the prize but there will be questions and doubters in the near term. The Bay Psalm is not for the faint hearted. Nor should it be.
The most recent exchange of this book took place in 1966 when the Van Sinderen family presented their copy to the Library of Congress. The presenter, the late Jean Van Sinderen Henry, was bookseller Bill Reese’s godmother.
The next copy comes up on November 26th at Sothebys in New York. It comes from the vaults of the Old South Church in Boston for whom it is both diadem of their exceptional history and talisman for the broadening ministries they envision possible with the proceeds. It can be fairly said that who buys this book improves the world.
In preparation the book has been on tour, being exhibited at many of the principal libraries and collecting associations in the United States, in total at a dozen locations. The tour is unprecedented but the book itself is so steeped in history no special arrangements and special events seem excessive. Like Halley’s comet we can predict another copy will someday come to market but it will be our grandchildren who will hear of it. For this and the next generation this is the only chance we get.
For the collecting fields the Bay Psalm has already served collectors well by raising awareness. Some new players are probably already pawing the ground but it is very difficult to buy the best right out of the gate. Many though will be interested.
After an extensive tour of the United States, this copy will present itself for sale at Sotheby’s on November 26th. Its last stop before its exhibition at Sotheby’s headquarters is at the Grolier Club, itself a royal setting for this royal book. It has been a busy year.
Philadelphia, Rosenbach Museum & Library
Chicago, Newberry Library
St. Louis, Mercantile Library
Cleveland, Cleveland Public Library
Houston, Museum of Fine Arts (Bayou Bend)
San Francisco, the Bentley Reserve
Dallas, Dallas Public Library
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Los Angeles, Doheny Memorial Library, University of Southern California
New York City, Grolier Club
New York City, Sothebys, 1334 York Ave
For the serious and seriously wealthy collector of American books and history, the upcoming sale of the Old South Church’s copy of the first printed book in British North America, the 11th copy known, the Bay Psalm is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is not a pedestrian rarity. It is important and unique and examples almost never appear, the other 10 the prized possessions of important institutions. When sometime in the future another copy comes to market it too will invariably sell, setting records as it does, then to settle into the vault of a great library or museum or possibly a great collector. That will be then. For this era the moment is now.
Let’s hope that this generation’s Rosenbach is in the room and authorized to bid to the sun. When all is over the winner will achieve lasting recognition, the under bidder the lasting gratitude of the Church. In a hundred years the winning bidder’s name will have been woven into this volume’s provenance. The acquirer will have pursued history, captured it, and in time become part of it.
David Redden, Worldwide Chairman of Books and Manuscripts at Sotheby’s, describes the Bay Psalm as “the most famous book in America that no one has ever heard of.” He has done a lot to change that. On November 26th we’ll learn how much.
Once in a Lifetime - An AE Story published in January 2013
Link to the Old South Church's electronic copy of the Booke of Psalmes
The full text of the Parke-Bernet Sale in 1947
The full text of lot 847 in the Brinley Sale in 1879
The full description in the Crowinshield Sale in 1859
The full online catalogue at Sothebys.