Coming to a vault near you: America's first book

Newberry Library's distinguished guest travels like a rock star

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When it travels, which is rarely, the "Bay Psalm Book" has an entourage, including private security men. It's how superstars roll, as well as American history artifacts potentially worth as much as a winning lottery ticket.

Also like a superstar, the "Bay Psalm Book" has become known by a sort of pseudonym. Its real name, the one on the title page rather than the one historians and book collectors use, is "The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre."

On the road the "Bay Psalm Book" lives sort of like a vampire. It's not allowed to see daylight, and its primary resting place is inside a specially built box that fits exactly into a compartment hollowed out of the gray foam that fills the rest of a hard-sided briefcase.

But, no, that briefcase is not then attached by handcuffs to the wrist of the gentleman who has been carrying it, David Redden, director of special projects and books department chairman for the New York auction house Sotheby's.

To do so, said Redden, with a laugh, "would be fairly obvious."

When Redden is on an airplane with the book — as he was Monday morning, shepherding it from New York to Chicago, for a stop at the Newberry Library — he does not finish with Sky Mall and then get a notion to kill the rest of the flight by thumbing through the "Bay Psalm Book."

Among other reasons for not doing this, he would not want to leave one of 11 known copies of the first book printed and written in the land that would become the United States in the seat-back pocket in front of him. That would be a $15 million mistake, or maybe even a $30 million mistake, taking the low and high ends of the Sotheby's estimate for what the 1640, first-edition psalter will bring at auction next month.

Also, Redden has read it, and he said he finds its rhyming versions of the psalms — "The Lord to mee a shepherd is, want therefore shall not I / Hee in the folds of tender-grasse, doth cause mee downe to lie" — "a little odd" to one, like him, who knows the poems from the King James version.

But even as it is being coddled, this book is, have no doubt, a hard-working book. Like an author or musician, it is on tour, helping to boost its renown and, its owner and Sotheby's hope, its sale price when it goes on the auction block Nov. 26 in in New York.

"It's kind of a dream to sell a 'Bay Psalm Book' if you're in my world," Redden said. "This is truly the Gutenburg Bible of America. I sometimes call it the most famous book in America that nobody knows about."

(A few people have known about it. Will Harriss won a best first mystery novel prize for 1983's "The Bay Psalm Book Murder," involving the authenticity of a newly discovered copy of the book. You can buy a first edition of "The Bay Psalm Book Murder" on Barnes & Noble's website for $23.)

Although the "Bay Psalm Book" paid a sort of trial visit to Philadelphia earlier this year, the Newberry is its first stop on the official tour.

It'll be on public display there, free, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday. Then it goes to St. Louis and, before November, a list of cities that is still being developed but likely will include Dallas, San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, Cleveland and, back to its longtime home, Boston.

It is a Sotheby's twist on the usual book tour, most of which feature the writer and multiple copies of her work. This one has the book and Redden, who acts as a sort of docent for it.

The actual authors, scholars and preachers who created the new translation of the biblical psalms from the original Hebrew, are, of course, long dead.

Stephen Daye printed and bound the psalter in his shop in Cambridge, in the Massachussetts Bay Colony. The 1,700 copies made meant roughly one for every Puritan family to use in church to sing the psalms, a practice in which the Puritans deeply believed. The price they paid for a copy would have been "something like sixpence," Redden said.

The new translation and printing were "really an exercise in forwarding their religious beliefs," said Redden, himself a Brit. "It was a kind of declaration of independence from the Church of England. They dismissed the bible as translated by the Church of England and wanted their own translation."

In "the vault" at the Newberry mid-day Monday, Redden entered and, first, pulled a 20th century "Bay Psalm Book" edition that he carries out of a Sue the T. rex tote bag.

Fun fact: Redden was the auctioneer who sold that skeleton to the Field Museum in 1997 and since then, he said, "I'm the biggest collector of Sue memorabilia in the world."

He then carefully unpacked the first-edition "Bay Psalm Book" from its briefcase and did, in fact, thumb through it.

"To be crassly profane, you see how primitive and simple it is, and it has this vast, extrarodinary value," he said.

The book is in remarkably good shape considering its age and the use it surely got in its early days. The pages are brownish but not brittle.

The book was rebound, in black leather, in the 19th century. Someone, likely an early owner, used a blank page toward the front to write down some business records. The Boston Public Library, where the book been kept since 1860, put one of its paper nameplates on the inside cover, also in the 19th century.

The Newberry vault — which is really a secured, climate-controlled room within another secured, climate-controlled room — is where the library stores its most valuable treasures, including first editions of "Don Quixote" and of the "First Folio" of Shakespeare's plays.

Also on the table before Redden were some of the material the Newberry will display with the psalm book: items in the library's collection relating to the book's owner, Boston's famed Old South Church.

The church owns two "Bay Psalms" (and also makes a digital copy available on its website). Last December it made the controversial decision to sell one of them to boost flagging finances and help fund building maintenance and charitable work for the United Church of Christ congregation.

"The members voted overwhelmingly … to convert a precious and rare book — an ancient hymn book — … into ministries of justice, mercy and beauty," senior minister Nancy Taylor said in a statement, headlined "Doing a Hard Thing at a Critical Time."

Taylor compared the decision to one the congregation had made in the 1870s to move out of its historic building. Now known as the Old South Meeting House, that building is where Benjamin Franklin had been baptized and the Boston Tea Party had been planned.

The materials Newberry will display Wednesday includes one of two existing copies of a broadside describing the tea party meeting.

"It was being typeset as people left the meeting, went down and threw tea into the water," David Spadafora, the Newberry's president, said in a phone interview.

"Fabulous," said Redden, looking at the tea party broadside. "How wonderful!"

Estimating a price for something like the "Bay Psalm Book" "requires some thinking outside the box," Redden said. "You're comparing it to the sort of greatest objects in any category."

When a copy last sold, to Yale University in 1947, its price of $151,000 "was far and away the most any book had ever brought," said Redden.

At the time, Sotheby's sold a Rembrandt paining for $75,000 and, 60 years later, he said, would sell it again for $28 million. Meantime, in the past decade, the auctioneers sold a copy of Audubon's "Birds of America" for about $10.5 million and of the Magna Carta for $21 million.

"You look at yardsticks elsewhere," said Redden. "Objects at the very, very, very pinnacle of their category are intensely desirable and extraordinarily valuable."

There will be a reserve at the auction, a price below which it will not be sold (typically anywhere from 60 to 100 percent of the low estimate, said Redden). And, as per usual, he would also not disclose what Sotheby's cut will be.

But he figures he'll start the bidding at $8 million, and the sale "will last roughly the same amount of time selling Sue took — maybe five minutes."

Even if a private buyer ends up purchasing it, Redden says he has a "strong suspicion" that it will be given or loaned back to a public institution.

It would be perfect for the Newberry's collection, rich in American history, but a purchase is not likely, said the president, Spadafora.

"Our whole operating budget is smaller than what somebody is probably going to pay for it," he said.

The library, though, has invited collectors and benefactors it thinks might be interested to come take a look Tuesday night, after a media preview in the afternoon and before the public display Wednesday.

It is not impossible, Redden said, to imagine that all this attention might lead to the discovery of another "Bay Psalm Book." It's such an unassuming looking item, a copy or two might well be hiding in plain sight.

"Once this becomes famous again, I suspect a lot of people will be going through old bookshops, attics..." he said. "If they find one, they will have certainly hit the jackpot."

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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