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Published: Wednesday, 9/18/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Nation’s oldest book may yield divine sum

Bay Psalm on display today goes to auction

BY MACKENZIE CARPENTER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
The Bay Psalm Book, on exhibit from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Cleveland Public Library today only, is not only America’s first book; it’s a piece of American history. The Bay Psalm Book, on exhibit from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Cleveland Public Library today only, is not only America’s first book; it’s a piece of American history.
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CLEVELAND — He’s sold the jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, the piano from the classic film Casablanca, and Sue, the largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found.

David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's, looks over the Bay Psalm Book. The legendary auctioneer, who has sold everything from the jewels of the late Duchess of Windsor, to the piano from the Bogart-Bergman classic ‘Casablanca.’ David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's, looks over the Bay Psalm Book. The legendary auctioneer, who has sold everything from the jewels of the late Duchess of Windsor, to the piano from the Bogart-Bergman classic ‘Casablanca.’
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

But at a news conference on Tuesday at the Cleveland Public Library, David Redden, Sotheby’s legendary, silver-tongued showman-auctioneer, seemed almost at a loss for words as he tenderly opened a small, leather-bound Book of Psalms that is not only 373 years old but will, he hopes, fetch as much as $30 million. It’s all to help a historic Boston church continue its mission and ministries.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Bay Psalm Book

“This has to be the high point of any auctioneer’s career,” Mr. Redden said, looking at the browned pages packed with rows of large, wobbly print, “to touch and hold the Bay Psalm Book, America’s first book. It is not only precious and rare, it is the story of America.”

The first book ever printed in North America in 1640 and one of only 11 copies still in existence, the Bay Psalm Book will be on display today — one day only — from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Cleveland Public Library.

Some experts have scoffed at the $30 million figure, and Mr. Redden isn’t taking any chances — he’s personally taking the Bay Psalm Book on the road for what he calls an educational tour before it comes up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York on Nov. 26.

Stops are expected in Dallas, San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, and Boston before the big day in New York.

“It’s America’s most famous book, and we felt it was time for the public to get reacquainted with it,” Mr. Redden said.

If it’s so famous, why the need to get reacquainted with it?

“It’s the most famous book you’ve never heard of,” Mr. Redden shot back. “It’s the Gutenberg Bible of America.”

This isn’t your ordinary Sotheby’s auction spectacle, either, with some obscenely rich collector unloading his stuff onto a Qatari sheik or Russian oligarch.

Not only is the Bay Psalm Book of interest “only to Americans,” Mr. Redden said, its owner is the Old South Church in Boston, dedicated to serving the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, drug and alcohol abusers, and a sizable LGBT population — while struggling to make ends meet.

Last year, after much debate, the church’s congregation voted 271-34 — to sell one of its two copies of the Psalter to help stabilize its finances, even while retaining its primary copy of the Bay Psalm Book — stored at the Boston Public Library — along with 2,000 other rare books it owns. A digital version is also on its Web site.

The Old South Church has been around for 340 years, and is a member of the United Church of Christ. Samuel Adams sang in its choir and Benjamin Franklin was a member. Since 1875, the church has been located in an ornate Gothic-style building in Boston’s Back Bay.

And it has a leaky roof.

“Our building is in need of a lot of repairs,” said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister.

“We are a vital, vibrant, multicultural, progressive organization,” she said, noting that the church, a national landmark, is an exceedingly expensive building to maintain, as it is “the only church in Boston free and open to the public all the time.”

While the church’s membership has increased substantially in the past decade, “we have been looking at and getting our arms around our financial situation and our sustainability into the future,” she added. 

“We need an infusion of cash; otherwise we won’t be able to make it.”

In the end, “when members weighed the privilege of owning this wonderful piece of Americana and translating it into mission and ministry, they made the decision fairly quickly.”

Then the church called Sotheby’s.

The last Bay Psalm Book was sold in 1947 to Yale University for $151,000, an unfathomable price at the time. It remains the most pristine copy, with its original binding intact, whereas the Old South Church’s version was rebound in leather in the 19th century.

It is an incredibly rare book, but it is only important for collectors “as a talisman, a symbol of something,” said Bruce McKinney, an expert in Americana. European dealers he’s spoken to have shrugged it off, he said. “None feel it’s worth more than $3 million since it is not the primo printed copy.”

But, he added, “If they were going to get anyone who could sell this book for a decent amount of money, David Redden is the one. He is a Svengali, the greatest auction showman in the field in decades. Do you remember when Bill Clinton was being deposed in the 1990s, how he so carefully parsed words? David Redden is his equal.”

Indeed, after Mr. Redden compared the Bay Psalm Book to the Gutenberg Bible, a reporter pointed out that there are 11 copies of the Bay Psalm Book, not just one.

“There are also 48 Gutenberg Bibles,” Mr. Redden countered.

Moreover, all of the other Bay Psalm Books are in institutions, so this will likely be the last time one will be for sale, he added.

As such, Mr. Redden is carrying it around in a specially outfitted suitcase until auction day.

“I’m attached to it like Velcro,” he joked. As two hard-faced security guards looked on, Mr. Redden recounted its history: 1,700 copies printed by the Puritans for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as a means of uniting these first settlers in hard times.

There’s a reason why the book’s official title is actually called “The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre,” he noted. 

The Puritans were a scholarly lot, with command of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and they wanted a version that more accurately reflected the Hebrew text than the King James Version, in a different meter.

Mr. Redden, in his plummy British accent, proceeded to read aloud from the 100th Psalm: “The Lord to mee a shepherd is, want therefore shall not I / Hee in the folds of tender-grasse, doth cause mee downe to lie.”

Very nice.

Even if Mr. Redden reads that psalm from the auction podium, however, Mr. McKinney still believes his audience will be relatively small.

“It will ultimately only matter how two or three billionaires feel about it,” he said, noting that Bill Gates is rumored to be interested, given the focus on education that he and his wife, Melinda, have.

“If it brings $7 million, the church should have no complaints.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Mackenzie Carpenter at: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.



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