Update: The seventh edition Bay Psalm Book sold for $239,400.
What you see: A 1693 copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the only known survivor of the seventh edition. Sotheby’s estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.
The expert: Selby Kiffer, senior vice president and international senior books specialist for Sotheby’s New York.
The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in British North America. Why was it, above all other books that could have been published, printed first? What made its creation so urgent? It filled a specific need. The Puritans left England because they disagreed with strictures of the church. They accepted the bible as the word of God, but the for the psalms, which are for singing, they wanted their own translation. They wanted something truer to the Hebrew original, not beautiful English poetry. They prized accuracy above everything else.
So the Bay Psalm Book was a tool to do a job. Absolutely. Both the first edition of 1640 and the seventh edition of 1693 were workhorse books. They were not like the Gutenberg Bible, a large, impressive bible for a church or a fine home. It was for congregational singing, which took place at least three times a week.
The book is also an artifact that reflects why the Puritans left England? Yes. And I don’t think it’s incorrect to say it’s the first book written in English in the New World. All the scholarship was done in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by people who lived there. It was also the first book printed in English anywhere in the New World.
What is this seventh-edition copy of the Bay Psalms Book like in person? What eludes the camera? The great thing about books is they’re very tactile and made to be handled. Even when you have a book that’s beautifully bound, you want to open it up and turn the leaves. That’s what’s exciting to me. It survived all those centuries, and the experience [of reading it] is very similar to the experience of the worshippers who handled it in 1693. You get a sense of historical continuity.
What is your favorite detail of this copy of the Bay Psalms Book? I think it’s that it is so workmanlike. What’s most pleasing is it did its job so well. It’s the only one of this edition that survives. The others were used to pieces. It had a job to do, and it did it. Another thing is the provenance. Early owners signed it, which somehow makes the people more real. One was a judge during the Salem witch trials. Here, we have evidence that he owned books and went to church with his wife. She signed the book as well–it’s early evidence of book ownership by women in British North America, which is interesting in its own right.
What condition is this copy of the Bay Psalms Book in, and how are those assessments adjusted for the fact that it was a book that was designed for constant use? It’s funny. Someone who didn’t know books might not find it attractive at all. There’s no gold decorations and no title on the spine. But it did what it was supposed to do–it kept the pages together and got you from song to song. It’s a small book, shorter than four inches. It could be easily carried in a pocket from home to a worship service… it’s just very pleasing.
Is the Bay Psalm Book the sort of rare book on which you want to see some wear? As long as the book is complete–and it is–some sign of wear is good. A bit of wear, in my mind, is not a detraction.
So, signs of wear makes this type of book more interesting? I think it does, and it shows the book had a common interest. Religion played such a huge role in the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time, and that form of Puritanism [as represented by the Bay Psalms Book] touched all levels of society. The book would have provided a common touchstone, whatever their [the owners’] religious beliefs were.
I imagine its longevity shows how esteemed it was in British North America. It was a very successful translation. The book was constantly reprinted for more than a century after the first edition. Though it was made particularly for a British North American audience, it was reprinted in Scotland and England as well. Some would have been replaced as new editions came out. This one found an owner who did eventually tuck it away.
You were at Sotheby’s in 2013 when a first edition of the Bay Psalms Book sold for $14.1 million and a world auction record for any book. What was that experience like? It was certainly one of the great highlights of my career. It was a book everyone was aware of. It’s an icon of printing, book history, and American history. It deserved to become the most expensive book sold at auction, but it’s hard not to see it as a sort of celebrity. This is easier to see as a book. It reflects the history of the first edition, 53 years later. You can look at the two editions and look at how Boston and British North America grew. In 1640, it was a wilderness. In 1693, Boston was printing more books than Cambridge or Oxford, and was second to London–a distant second, but nonetheless a remarkable achievement. That’s the kind of growth and expansion illustrated by the two editions of the Bay Psalm Book.
How does this seventh-edition copy of the Bay Psalm Book compare to other antique copies of the book you have handled? I haven’t handled more than two Bay Psalm Books. I handled almost all the first editions when I did a census for a catalog, but I haven’t handled more than two commercially. Comparatively, it’s in very good condition because it retains its original binding. Most first editions of the Bay Psalm Book have been rebound. What’s sad about that is it wasn’t out of necessity. In the 19th century, it was thought that important books ought to look important, and they were bound in red or green leather with a lot of gold on it. This seventh edition is in really very desirable condition because it’s close to what it would have been when it was first published.
It’s more true. Exactly. And taste has shifted. You don’t want a book in a fancy binding unless it had a fancy binding when it was first published.
Why will this rare book stick in your memory? For people who are unfamiliar with books, the phrase that’s most familiar is “first edition”. The idea that a seventh edition book can be exciting and historically significant and shed light on the history of books in America–that’s what’s most interesting about it.
How to bid: The seventh-edition copy of the Bay Psalm Book is lot 390 in The Passion of American Collectors: Property of Barbara and Ira Lipman | Highly Important Printed and Manuscript Americana, scheduled at Sotheby’s New York for April 13, 2021.
Images are courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Selby Kiffer has appeared on The Hot Bid twice before, discussing Frank Sinatra’s copy of the 1961 Inaugural program for John F. Kennedy as well as a double elephant folio of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.
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