A copy of the first book printed in the United States, officially titled “The Whole Booke of Psalmes,” sold at auction on Nov. 26 for $14,165,000 (including buyer’s premium).
When the Bay Psalm Book sold for a record $14.2 million on Nov. 26, I wasn’t surprised. After all, it was the very first book published in the United States, in 1640. Less than 2,000 were originally printed and only 11 are known to have survived.
The book toured the country for quick visits to select libraries in the months prior to its auction and I was lucky enough to be able to see it. It is small (6 by 5 inches) and simple, with browned but supple pages and some unfortunate notations scribbled in by a previous owner. I was disappointed to note that it had been rebound (probably in the 1800s), but 375-year-old books are rarely found with their original covers in good condition.
A public library nameplate was pasted inside and, although that is usually distasteful for book collectors, it did not diminish the appeal of this very special volume (owned by the Boston Public Library since 1860). The best part of the sale is that the new owner, philanthropist David Rubenstein, plans to share it with everyone by loaning it to libraries across America.
Over the past few weeks, a rash of publicity has followed the sale. Magazines, newspapers, websites and news channels have repeated the story, with avid interest from collectors, bibliophiles, historians and even fine art enthusiasts. Now, people with family books dating to the 1500s are calling and asking for appraisals. Shouldn’t keepsakes that are 100 years older than the Bay Psalm Book be valuable too, they ask. Sometimes the answer is not what the owners want to hear.
Rare titles in high demand are always valuable, regardless of age. But generic antiquarian books are harder to pigeonhole. Many books from the 16th and 17th century are unimportant medical, philosophy or history volumes written in Latin or Italian. Others may be in German or Spanish with various religious themes. They could be worth several hundred dollars apiece or more, depending on subject matter and condition. Maps are great, because they document ancient geographical boundaries that are now changed. And elaborate hand-tinted engravings are always desirable.
But the rest may be open to interpretation. As a very broad rule of thumb, antiquarian books that might be valued for their age include those printed before 1500, those in English before 1650, those printed in the United States before 1800 and those printed west of the Mississippi before 1850. We’ll now take a look at these four types of books:
The Gutenberg Bible is accepted as the first major book published on Gutenberg’s printing press in Mainz, Germany, in the 1450s. Fewer than 50 full copies of this Latin bible survive. Because the book is so famous, many of the bibles were broken apart in the past for single-page ownership.
Printed Before 1500
The first western printing press (allowing mass production of books) is attributed to Johannes Gutenberg and was developed in Germany around 1450. Germany and Austria added several other printing locations over the next 15 years. Between 1465 and 1485, printing spread to about a dozen other European countries. Books (called incunabula) that are published during the first 50 years of this printing history are rare and highly valued.
Printed in English before 1650
In the 1500s, locations with printing presses spread astronomically. Italy, in particular, had presses in almost 100 cities and towns. Other countries to enact early printing expansion in multiple cities included Switzerland, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 200 million books were printed in Europe during the 16th century. Printing presses even traveled overseas. The first book printed in North America (in what is now Mexico) dates to around 1540, a full century before the Bay Psalm Book. Furthermore, most paper was made of rags (not wood pulp like today) so pages did not deteriorate as easily. Thus, 16th- and 17th-century books, although uncommon, are not as scarce as one might think.
However, many, many books were still published in Latin during this time. And the British expanded their printing locations later than other European countries. Therefore, English books are harder to find. That—coupled with collector preference—is why books printed in English are in higher demand than others from this period.
This eclectic book, printed in Italian and Greek in 1558, is a translation of an earlier work by the Roman philosopher Macrobius. It has woodcut maps showing climatic zones across several continents and describes banquet courses paired with appropriate wines. Because of the historic subject matter, it sold for $640 (including buyer’s premium) in 2009.
Printed in the United States before 1800
The printing press was slow to spread in the United States. In 1722, some 82 years after the Bay Psalm Book was published, only four cities had presses. By 1740, the number of cities had increased to nine, but there were still only 15 total printing businesses in existence and several colonies had none. Also, many of the presses were dedicated to printing newspapers, pamphlets and broadsheets. Unless a subject was uniquely American, it was easier and cheaper to import books from England (the first American cookbook wasn’t printed until 1742). It was only during and after the American Revolution that local book publication became more desirable. It is easy to see why books printed in the United States before 1800 are rare and highly valued.
Printed West of the Mississippi before 1850
The western expansion of the United States, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803, is one of the defining themes of the 19th century. Book publishing in America, which had been focused in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, slowly began to appear in cities such as St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many of these early books may be in Spanish or French or document local legislative sessions. Those might have limited appeal to some collectors. But books of historical interest describing first-hand accounts of telegraph and railroad routes, the early days of California’s Gold Rush, Indian occupation and the like can be highly valued.
So, the Bay Psalm Book has a lot going for it besides its storied place in American history. It was printed in English before 1650, printed in the United States long before 1800 and is in great condition. When it comes to a local library near you, thanks to David Rubenstein, be sure to check it out. You may never have a chance to see a book worth $14 million again.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.
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