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Bay Psalm Book from 1640 breaks auction record for printed volume

Auction house Sotheby's has sold a book, believed to be the first printed in what is now the United States, for a record price of $14.2 million. The Bay Psalm Book is now the world's most expensive printed book.

One of 11 surviving copies of "The Bay Psalm Book" fetched $14.165 million (10.445 million euros) at auction at Sotheby's in New York on Tuesday, becoming the world's most costly printed book. Boston's Old South Church had decided to sell one of its two remaining copies to increase its grants and ministries.

The translation, penned by Puritan settlers from Hebrew Old Testament psalms, was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640. It sold at a one-lot auction at Sotheby's on Tuesday in a matter of minutes, opening at $6 million and swiftly climbing to a hammer price of $12.5 million - and $14.165 million with the buyer's premium included.

"The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated into English Metre," a decorative heading on the title page reads, followed by: "Imprinted 1640."

Although the issue is subject to some debate, with the possibility that an almanac might have come off a US press beforehand, Sotheby's billed the item as "America's First Printed Book." The last time one of the surviving editions went on sale, in 1947, it fetched a then-record $151,000.

The most expensive printed book prior to the sale was a copy of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," also sold at Sotheby's in December 2010 for $11.5 milllion.

Short of all-time record, sold to familiar bidder

Estimates prior to Tuesday's sale had suggested that the Bay Psalm Book might have become the most expensive book of any kind in history. The bidding fell well short of the $30.8 million commanded by the Leonardo da Vinci Codex Leicester, a one-of-a-kind handwritten notebook of scientific writings and diagrams, sold at Christie's in 1994.

Sotheby's named Tuesday's buyer as US financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein, who submitted his bids by phone from Australia. Auctioneer David Redden, also the head of Sotheby's books, said Rubenstein planned to share the book by loaning it to a number of libraries and then leaving it with one library on a long-term basis.

"We're very very pleased about this purchase. If you recall, David Rubenstein also bought the Magna Carta from us back in 2007 for the same reasons," Sotheby's Redden said. Rubenstein spent over $21 million on one of the 17 remaining manuscript copies of the 798-year-old English royal document setting out the rights of man.

Redden said the Bay Psalm Book also marked an important step towards American independence as Puritans published their own preferred translations of the Old Testament psalms.

"With it, New England declared its independence from the Church of England," he said.

msh/ch (AFP, AP)