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Old South Church’s ‘Bay Psalm Book’ Sells for Over $14 Million, Part I

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Financier David M. Rubenstein purchased a copy of a Psalter (a volume of the Book of Psalms), the Bay Psalm Book – one of just eleven copies known to still exist – from Boston’s Old South Church for $14,165,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York City that lasted just two-and-a-half minutes on Tuesday, November 26, 2013. What Mr. Rubenstein actually bid was $12,500,000.

The sum $14,165,000 includes the “buyer’s premium.” [This is a fee that the auction house tacks on, based on a percentage of the winning bid.]. This sum falls short of the projected fifteen-to-thirty million dollar range Old South Church had hoped to raise at auction, but sets a record nevertheless.

The previous record-holder was a copy of Jean-Jacques Audubon’s lavishly illustrated Birds of America, which sold at auction for $11,540, 000 in 2010. [James Barron estimated in The New York Times that with inflation (a scant few years later) this would be $12,390,000 in today’s money.] This is not Rubenstein’s first purchase of a historic text, and nor is it the most he has paid for such a text.

In 2007, Rubenstein purchased a copy of Magna Carta for $21,000,000, which James Barron explained would be $23,700,000 in today’s money. Rubinstein, who placed his bid via a phone call from Australia, told the auctioneer, Sotheby’s Vice Chairman David N. Redden, that he would like to lend the Bay Palm Book to libraries across the U.S.

In a New York Times video interview with Stephen Farrell, Redden pointed out that there are fewer copies of the Bay Psalm Book than either the Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare’s First Folio. He estimated there are forty-eight copies of the Gutenberg Bible still in existence and 200 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Redden is also Worldwide Chairman of Books & Manuscripts and Head of Department for Special Projects at Sotheby’s. He joined Sotheby’s in 1974 and is the auction house’s longest-serving auctioneer. Redden has run the Books & Manuscripts Department since the early 1980s.

It was Redden who was the auctioneer for the aforementioned Magna Carta auction. He was the auctioneer when The Field Museum purchased Sue the Tyrannosaurus fossil skeleton. Redden was also the auctioneer for The Forbes Family Collection of Imperial Fabergé; The O'Fallon Collection of American Indian Portraits by George Catlin; the Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Property from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; and the Russian Space History sale.

Rubenstein is a multi-billionaire with degrees from Duke University and The University of Chicago. He is Managing Director of The Carlyle Group, one of the largest private equity firms.

The New York Public Library owns one of the ten other copies, having purchased it in London in 1855 for nineteen shillings (£1,900). Barron quoted NYPL Rare Book Curator Michael Inman as saying, “It’s one of those things where there are 11 known copies, so it’s one of the holy grails for book collectors.”

The Coptic Christians of Egypt wrote Psalters as early as the 5th Century. In Medieval Europe, monastic scribes produced illuminated Psalters along with Gospel Books, Lectionaries, Antiphonaries, Breviaries, and Hymnaries.
In Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Anglican churches, priests and deacons might say, sing, or chant the Psalms. One of the many things that distinguished Puritan church services from Catholic and Anglican masses was that instead of having a choir sing or chant the psalms, the whole congregation would sing the psalms.
Often, a Medieval Psalter would include canticles from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, a liturgical calendar, and the litany of saints. Before it became common for affluent laymen to commission or acquire an illuminated Book of Hours they commissioned or acquired illuminated Psalters.

The Puritans published 1,700 copies of the Bay Psalm Book in Cambridge in 1640. It is the first book written entirely in British North America, the first book published in British North America in any language, and thus also the first book published in English in any part of what is now the United States.

The title of the book is actually The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre. The Old South Church had hitherto owned two copies, both of which had been deposited at the Boston Public Library for over a century.

The Rev. Dr. Nancy S. Taylor told The New York Times in a video interview with Stephen Farrell, “The congregation’s vote – you know, it was not an easy decision, you know, this is a very precious piece of history, but it was a very strong decision, in the end. The congregation voted, the members voted about nine to one, to sell it, because we’re not in the business of being a museum. We’re not in the business of being a library. We love museums, we love libraries, but that is not our business. We’re able to convert this amazing aspect into what is our business, mission in the city of Boston.”

During a twenty-year-long period between 1620 and 1640, large numbers of Puritans migrated from England to New England. This was part of a larger mass migration – the Great Migration – of Englishmen and women from England to Ireland, British North America, and the West Indies.

Migration tapered off because of the English Civil War (1642-1651) – really a revolution –that ended with the regicide of Charles I in 1649. Ostensibly, England became a republic called the Commonwealth of England (1649 to 1653), but in reality it was a military dictatorship in which Oliver Cromwell (1599- 1658) – a Puritan of the Independent faction – and his New Model Army shared power with the Rump Parliament, and it was succeeded by the Protectorate (1653-1659), a period when Cromwell ruled as tyrant with little pretense of sharing power with an elected legislature. Naturally, royalists called the period between Charles I’s murder and Charles II’s coronation the Interregnum.

The Puritans were English Calvinists (but often at odds with the Presbyterians, who are also Calvinists, both in Scotland and in England) who won the war, but were unable to impose their “pure” vision of Protestantism on the Church of England, which had retained many Catholic rituals, after the Restoration (of Charles II after Cromwell’s death) in 1660. The Puritans were especially strong in East Anglia (Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire), a part of England with rich farmlands and a coastline dotted with seaports.

To escape Queen Mary I’s wrath, many prominent English Protestants fled to Geneva, one of two centers of the Protestant Reformation. They encountered one of the Protestant leaders, John Calvin (1509-1564), and came under his influence. This is how they came to adopt the French tradition of singing the psalms.

In Scotland, Calvinists founded the Presbyterian Church. The Congregational Church in the U.S. is Calvinist and comes from the strain of English Calvinism whose members historically had been called Separatists or Independents, as distinguished from English Presbyterians.

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