Tuesday 26 November 2013

The Bay Psalm Book Sale

There has been some controversy in the US over the sale of some articles belonging to a church:
The congregation of the Old South Church, founded in 1669 in Boston, has voted to sell one of their two copies of the Bay Psalm book, first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and which is known as America's first book. The book, which takes as its full title The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, has been valued at $20m (£12.5m), according to reports. Hundreds were printed when it was first published in the 17th century, but only 11 are known to remain. The church is also set to sell 19 pieces of colonial silver in order to pay for repairs and continue its outreach work, but the move has been controversial. [...] "Once we break the faith with our forebears, it's all out the door," church historian Jeff Makholm told the Associated Press. "How easy is it to spend somebody else's money?"
The print run was reportedly about 1700 copies, only eleven remain in existence, and nine of them are in major collections or libraries. Sotheby's, which auctioned the Bay Psalm Book (26 November) originally estimated it would fetch  $15-30 million, but in fact it only sold for $12.5M hammer price ($14,165,000 total) to US financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein (who says he plans to loan it to libraries across the country). Even so, the price raised is said to have made it the most expensive printed book. The Old South Church has one other copy, which it says it currently has no plans to sell.

Although this ill-printed thing has mainly local appeal, I think that in a way it is rather a shame that the buyer was not a foreign collector who wanted to take the book to a major Japanese, or Gulf State collection. This might have roused a bit of debate in the US where, it seems if you follow much of what they say, collectors, dealers and others seem to regard themselves as having an indisputable God-given "right" to accumulate in their homes and museums just about everything they want and can get their hands on, without a thought for the needs of those from whom they are taken. US collectors and dealers, living in a new country not having very much of its own material cultural heritage to lose, apparently find it very difficult to get their heads round the issues and see the other side of the story (from the point of view of a "source country" whose heritage is being drained away by outsiders). The threat of losing one of the few things that really has a claim to be important US cultural heritage might have provided a platform for such reflection and debate.

Alison Flood, 'America's first book set to be sold amid holy rowChurch votes to sell Bay Psalm book, printed in 1640, despite protests from some congregants', The Guardian.com, Wednesday 5 December 2012

'Bay Psalm Book is world's most expensive printed work at $14.2m' BBC 27 November 2013.

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