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America’s first printed book visits Amazon in Seattle

Yesterday I attended a reception for the Bay Psalm Book hosted by Amazon to celebrate Sotheby’s forthcoming auction of this historic book. Seattle was the latest stop on a tour of the United States that has delighted bibliophiles from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The interesting juxtaposition of the first book printed in what became the United States and the e-commerce giant Amazon (who is AbeBooks’ parent company and the creator of the Kindle) was not lost on anyone in the room.

The book itself is modest but looks robust enough. It entered the room accompanied by two burly security guards and was carried in a reinforced custom case. Selby Kiffer, Sotheby’s international senior books specialist, carefully balanced the book on his lap as he prepared it for the viewing. I couldn’t help noticing that he wasn’t wearing gloves.

“No, we don’t use gloves,” explained Selby. “It’s important that we have the full ability to touch and handle an item like that. You lose something with gloves.”

The book was placed open on a pedestal and encased in a perspex case. The two security guards would not have looked out of place outside a nightclub. One of them, Tom, was perhaps the most bookish bouncer in the security business at the moment. He had guarded the Bay Psalm Book in USC’s Doheny Library, Chicago‚Äôs Newberry Library, Cleveland’s public library, St. Louis Mercantile Library and a number of other important institutions around the US.

The book was placed open at Psalm 23 and it was easy to see how different this version of the ‘Lord is my Shepherd’ psalm is from the text commonly known today. Not satisfied with the English editions in circulation, the puritan publishers of the Bay Psalm Book had translated the text from Hebrew in order to stay closer to the psalm’s original meaning.

The reaction of visitors was interesting to see. Some photographed it, while others were photographed with it. For many (including myself), it was hard to grasp that this book was printed in 1640 using paper and a very basic printing press imported from Britain, and yet it is still in remarkable condition today.

Sotheby’s will auction the book in a single item sale on November 26 on behalf of Boston’s Old South Church, which is retaining another copy. The sale estimate is a mind-boggling $15 million to $30 million, and there was widespread speculation at the reception about whether the estimate would be reached and who would buy it. Two local rare booksellers Priscilla Anne Lowry of Lowry-James Rare Prints and Books and John Lang of John Michael Lang Fine Books positively glowed with interest.

“I think it will exceed $30 million,” was the bold prediction of John. While Priscilla Anne added that she thought the book could be sold to a buyer outside the US – something that Selby Kiffer predicted as being “highly unlikely.”

Sotheby’s has worked hard to publicize its auction but the tour has put the Bay Psalm Book in front of a wider audience and definitely added buzz to the rare book world. As Selby Kiffer pointed out last night, the auction has also reminded many people about this important period in American history when a nation’s culture was just being developed.

The auction could be the most furious five minutes of rare bookselling since 1947 when the last copy of a Bay Psalm Book was sold for $151,000 – a record-breaking sum for the time.

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