Oldest Book in the World Printed in America, Auctioned at $14.2 Million

Oldest Book in the World Printed in America, Auctioned at $14.2 Million
Bernadine Racoma

The  oldest book in the world, printed in America, has also become the world’s most expensive book after Sotheby’s sold it at a New York auction on Tuesday for $14.2 million. The book, “Bay Psalm Book” contains Biblical psalms translated in English and printed in 1640 by Puritan settlers in Massachusetts.

Bidding price

In a very exciting one-slot auction, the bidding for the book started at $6 million and went up to $12.5 gavel price. As soon as the second buyer’s bid was acknowledged, the price rose to $14.165 million. It then closed to a final $14.2 million outlay. The opening and closing bids came in just minutes, according to Sotheby’s. The book was originally appraised at a value of $15 million to $30 million but Sotheby’s said the actual selling price was not at all a disappointment. The last printed book auctioned at a record price cost $11.5 million, which was again sold by Sotheby’s last December 2010. The book was “Birds of America” by John James Audubon.

The buyer of the oldest book has been identified as David Rubenstein, an American billionaire-financier and philanthropist. He joined the bid through telephone from Australia. Incidentally, the 72-page Codex Leicester, consisting of the handwritten scientific findings of Leonardo da Vinci is the world’s most expensive manuscript. Bill Gates bought it for $30.8 million in 1994.

The book

Protected in a glass case, the book with browning and gilt pages stood behind the auction manager while the bidding that lasted less than five minutes took place. A handful of crowd was present. When the Puritan settlers came from Europe to America, they wanted to have their own way of religious exercise and hence sought to translate the original Old Testament book written in Hebrew. David Redden, Sotheby’s books manager said the saga of the oldest book is considered very uncommon. For over two generations, it remained invisible in the marketplace, thus becoming too rare for collectors.

Significance of the book

Accordingly, the significance of the book is more than being the first book written or printed in America. The oldest book apparently played an important role in history as it was passed on from Lexington to Concord and finally to the time when America achieved political independence. It was with this book that New England (a northeastern part of the United States) announced its independence from the England Church. Selby Kiffer, also from Sotheby’s, referred to the “Bay Psalm Book” as not only one of the great symbols of book history but one of the most extraordinary relics of American history.

The original 1640 edition had 1,700 copies, of which 11 copies are retained to date. The surviving books are in repositories such as The Library of Congress in New York and Harvard College Library. Several book auctions were conducted since 1947 but no copy of the original “Bay Psalm Book” appeared. Instead, a different publication was sold at $151,000, setting a world record at the time for an auctioned book collection.

The oldest book was sold through the Old South Church in Boston for the benefit of its projects. Another copy of the “Bay Psalm Book” is in the possession of the same church.

Photo Credit: World’s Oldest Book


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