"This is the most famous unknown book in the world, a great piece of American history, but not something most people know about," said David Redden, Sotheby's worldwide chairman of books and manuscripts. "It's the first glimmer of Western civilization in our country. The image of the printing press in the wilderness is something that sticks in our minds because, essentially, that's what it was, creating a great symbol of civilization after only a few years of being in this world. It is not only the first book printed in America, but it was also a unique translation of biblical Psalms for a specific reason - to reject the Church of England."
That first print run in Cambridge, Mass., 136 years before the country's founding, produced 1,700 copies of what is identified on the title page as The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated into English Metre. Only 11 are known to survive.
Sotheby's is sending the book on a road show to several American cities to do what auction houses do - drum up excitement to get the highest possible price. But in this case, its interests align with an educational mission on behalf of an artifact that could use some public relations. As a specimen, it's rather dowdy looking - in plain binding, lacking illustrations, and not even (in this earliest edition) any musical notations.
Another reason for its low profile is that "a book like this gets known when it comes up for auction, and the last time one was sold was 1947," Reddens said. "So one of the goals in bringing it around is to reacquaint America with its first book. Obviously, most people who come to look at it aren't going to buy it. But that does not mean they shouldn't have an interest in it."
Locally, reuniting the Rosenbach and Old South Church copies comes with some added significance. The project is the first between the Rosenbach and the Free Library of Philadelphia in their incipient merger. Legally, the library has not yet taken over the smaller institution, but the two are already functioning as one, officials from both groups said. The initial idea was to display the two volumes at the roomier Free Library on the Parkway, but insurance costs of transporting the hymnal the few blocks from the Rosenbach, near Rittenhouse Square, to the Parkway were prohibitively high - in excess of $15,000. "We didn't even get a final quote; the quotes just kept going up," Free Library president Siobhan A. Reardon said.
The boards of the Free Library and Rosenbach have yet to approve the final terms of the merger, but are expected to do so by July 1, with the legal work completed within several months, she said. For future projects that require removing items from the Rosenbach to the Parkway, few others would be valued as high as the Bay Psalm Book and therefore would not require insurance coverage as expensive, she said. Though the two books will be on display side by side, visitors will not be free to thumb through them. The books will sit in cases, accompanied by generous explanatory materials.
The Old South Church copy is complete except for having its original binding replaced, probably in the 18th century. It is also missing an extra leaf that would have listed corrections. The Rosenbach copy, which does have its original binding and errata leaf, but which is missing its title page, was acquired in 1933 by founder A.S.W. Rosenbach, who bought it from a Belfast seller for 150 pounds (about $750 at the time, $13,500 in 2013 dollars).
Old South Church voted in December to sell one of two copies to finance maintenance of its building and to expand programs, said Redden, even though some members opposed selling off so precious an artifact. No one can predict what it will sell for at the Nov. 26 auction, but Redden did proffer something about where it would go next.
"It's extremely unlikely this book will ever leave America," he said. "It will be bought by an American institution or collector, because it is very expensive, and no one else in the world will understand the value the way an American will."