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Rare Psalm book sells for $14.2 million

Story highlights

  • Buyer is philanthropist David Rubenstein
  • Gavel goes down at $14.2 million at Sotheby's
  • Rare Bay Psalm Book is the first book ever written and printed in America
  • The book came from the collection of the Old South Church in Boston

The world's most valuable book sold Tuesday for $14.16 million at Sotheby's in New York, according to the auction house.

The rare Bay Psalm Book is the first book ever written and printed in what is now the United States. Its sale set a record for a book sold at auction, Sotheby's said.

Philanthropist David Rubenstein purchased one of 11 surviving copies.

He "plans to share it with the American public by loaning it to libraries across the country, before putting it on long-term loan at one of them," according to Sotheby's.

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The Bay Psalm Book is a translation of the biblical psalms by the Puritans and was an important part of their church service.

"It's so very valuable because it is the beginning of Western civilization in our country," said David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's. "In fact, it is the first poetry in America -- it's as simple as that."

Currently, the 11 surviving versions of the 1,700 originally printed are in institutional collections, including Harvard, Yale, Oxford, the New York Public Library and the Huntington Library in California.

The book auctioned Tuesday is from the collection of the Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts, which had it for more than 300 years. It is one of two copies in their possession, with the sale intended to support its mission and ministry in Boston.

Congregationalist Puritans, who settled around Massachusetts Bay in search of religious freedom, wanted to translate and produce a version of the Book of Psalms closer to the Hebrew original than the one they had brought over from England.

The first edition of the Bay Psalm Book was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tuesday's sale is the first time since 1947 and the second time since 1894 that a copy has appeared at auction. In 1947, it achieved a higher price than any other book printed at the time, when Sotheby's sold it for $151,000.

"This little book of 1640 was a precursor to Lexington and Concord, and, ultimately, to American political independence," Redden said. "With it, New England declared its independence from the Church of England."

Tuesday's sale eclipses the previous auction record for a printed book, at Sotheby's London, when a copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America sold for $11.5 million in 2010, the auction house said.

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