Once in a Lifetime
The Old South Church
Note: records and links mentioned in this article are listed at the end of page 4]
Boston today is a field of skyscrapers interspersed with patches of history that live on as old buildings and parks and curbside historical plates to explain long-ago significance. Among these many historic icons is the Old South Church at 645 Boylston on Copley Square opposite the Boston Public Library. In its present location since the 19th century it has maintained its place in the ancient downtown even as the streets have widened and neighbors one by one succumbed to the blandishments of progress and money. Through its nearly three hundred and fifty years the church has held on to its royal place in American history through the inevitable fires, depression, development and waves of new ideas that are ever a danger to the old. History it seems is always at risk, even in Boston. These days the church’s changing mission, its progress and continuing relevance, even its survival as a living institution are being weighed against the emotional and financial value of two books they own that are so important that the sale of one is expected to reconstitute the institution’s financial structure for the foreseeable future. The books they own are two copies of the Bay Psalm printed in 1640, the first book to be printed in the British American colonies. They have two copies and the thinking is they can part with one.
For the Church the issues are complex: how to maintain and strengthen its robust ministries and honor its storied history. If the focus is on its history those that oppose a sale will judge it a sacrilege. If, on the other hand, the goal is the greatest good for the largest audience the book will be cashed and the proceeds invested. Church leaders and members grappled openly with these matters over many years. They concluded that as the church is not in the library business they should transform a treasure from the past into ministries for the future. Recently the congregation voted to sell a copy, a vote that required two thirds in favor and achieved almost Russian results, 88%. A copy will be sold.
Because this book has been a fragile cultural icon for more than a hundred years neither copy has been kept in the church since 1866 so it's possible many of the church’s 300 members have never seen one in person. Both copies are kept at the Boston Public Library and access strictly governed. For the interested a link to the Church's electronic full text version is provided on page 4.
Once in a Lifetime
The gem of American book collecting
So while the church is associated with these copies and fully recognizes their importance, they are not mission-critical to the work of the Church. Unlike so many churches struggling with declining membership, Old South Church is growing. It is on the rise. In the course of six years they have doubled their membership, added an additional three worship services and grown and deepened their outreach work. Interestingly, this church is finding fulfillment with its outreach programs including several to Africa.
All of this is at risk, however, as the congregation on its own is unable to keep up with the maintenance of its exuberant 1875 National Historic Landmark which is free and open to the public seven days a week.
In short it’s a struggle and its members, when balancing the importance of a Bay Psalm against the good deeds possible with the proceeds, simply voted for the good they can do over the good feelings and bragging rights ownership of two volumes of the Bay Psalm makes possible. Ultimately what is most immediately relevant is that the roof is in need of repair, such repairs are costly and there is no other obvious ways to pay for them. The sale of a single volume will, in short, right the ship. It will both enable the Church to catch up on deferred maintenance and provide sufficient ongoing wind to fill its sails.
Selling the book is not a new idea. The church has been in need of repairs for a long time. Bailey Bishop, the Cambridge rare books icon, was asked some twenty years ago for his opinion and offered that a copy might bring $20 million. Nothing came of that discussion and today he is a bit less optimistic, “perhaps $10 million but only because Americans have lost interest in their history. The book is a wonderful object.” In any event he does not favor a sale. “Borrow against it and invest. It should not be sold.” On the other side of the calculation Bill Reese of New Haven, the leading dealer in printed Americana, expects it will do better than $10 million, “Ten million is the floor and it could easily exceed $20 million.”
The news however is not all good. The church’s copies are almost complete, that is they are incomplete. One has a few words repaired in pen. The other is missing its errata, the printer Stephen Dye’s list of typographical errors. Both are rebound tastefully and I should add tactlessly. Their original bindings were fragile and the thinking 160 years ago was to make them sturdy. That they did. But they also made these volumes less valuable but have not ruined them altogether both because they are the first printing of a book in America and are impossibly rare. Nine other copies in fact are known and all reside in institutions that count their copies among their sacred texts. They won’t be selling so this copy is probably the sole option for a serious collector in their lifetime. In fact the last two appearances of a copy was another of the Old South Church copies that passed to Edward A. Crowninshield in the 1850s, was sent to auction at Leonard & Co. in Boston in his sale in 1859, was purchased by Henry Stevens as part of his treaty sale for the entire collection, then sold to George Brinley in 1868 and sold by him at auction in 1878 for $1,200 to Cornelius Vanderbilt. I mention this detail to illustrate the symbolic power of this book. The wealthiest and most book-obsessed have been pursuing copies of this volume for most of 250 years.
Once in a Lifetime
An understated binding
This copy then disappeared for most of 60 years then to reemerge in 1947 to be purchased at auction by A. S. W. Rosenbach on behalf of friends of Yale University who had authorized a bid of $85,000 and were later disappointed to learn that Mr. Rosenbach, on their behalf, paid $151,000. Arguments ensued but the outcome was upheld and Yale received an exceptional copy and at some point stopped groaning. Their concerns were not unjustified. At that time, $151,000 was equal to tuition, room and board for 125 students for a full year.
Recently David Redden, Vice President of Sotheby’s and head of Books and Manuscripts of the 268-year-old auctioneer inspected the church’s copies and pronounced the one proposed for sale to be worth up to $25 million. He no doubt has it right. The only question is whether the purchaser will be Bill Gates, Steve Wynn or another very wealthy individual whose name may not be disclosed for a generation. If Mr. Wynn is the buyer the book will be displayed at one of his casinos tastefully positioned between a Monet and Houdini’s handcuffs.
While the price may reach nicely into 8 digits the substantial commission will be the outcome of a discussion between serious parties on both sides. At $10 million the stated commission at Sotheby’s is $1,282,500. Experience suggests some accommodation is possible. In any event other houses will offer attractive proposals and the church will have its pick.
This said, there is a certain alchemy to auction presentation and sale and all houses do not do this equally well. If the church wants, and in my opinion the book deserves, a regal presentation it will have fewer choices and the options will be complicated. Therefore while the church can pray for help I suggest they also retain two knowledgeable negotiators. Logically auction houses in the running should have existing good relations with the logical bidders. Rapport engenders trust and trust will be the currency most needed when decisions are made about bids.
As to who might buy it I suggested to Bailey that of the nine institutions that own a copy, many are noticeably not as good as the example to be sold and therefore they may be interested. To this he said, “No, institutions with lesser copies rarely trade up. They are happy to have a copy, any copy, even if it’s only a substantial fragment.” He believes a private collector will purchase it and Bill Reese agrees. I mentioned Bill Gates and Bailey said he too had him first on his list. “Such a book requires a longer perspective that looks beyond money to the symbolic value of such a commitment.” For Mr. Gates, a collector of serious books who has committed billions to eradicating malaria in Africa, a commitment to America’s first book, whose sale will directly support the Old South Church's outreach programs, seems highly plausible. As well, Steve Green, owner of the craft chain Hobby Lobby has an extraordinary collection of Bibles, is building a museum for them in Washington and may find this book irresistible.
Once in a Lifetime
A sale of a book to illuminate the future
As to who might sell it it will probably go to auction although a private sale is possible. Any house can sell it but an important house will sell it. If the consignors are thinking eBay they can expect thank you notes from several hundred bidders for giving them a crack at something they cannot afford but may be able to bid on if the bidding starts low. Wherever the book is sold it will stand on its own but the quality of the supporting research and its catalogue presentation should be on a par with its importance. Under-present it and they run the risk it underperforms which could be a difference of several million dollars. Simply stated the best outcome demands the absolute best presentation. It’s not a Gutenberg that will some day bring $50 million but it is an extraordinary American icon that will effortlessly sail north of $10 million.
Why the Bay Psalm will bring so much gets into the alchemy of great bookselling. The church will be selling a book but bidders will be buying its story, its significance and rarity. Therefore making its case, explaining its importance and bringing its distinguished provenance to life will be important. That’s where the price will be determined.
The book, befitting its importance, will be the subject of a single item sale and its catalogue emphasize the history of the few copies known. Their owners read like a who’s who of the stellar collecting libraries. Of the eleven copies known only five are complete. This copy is complete with an asterisk but tastefully, and long ago, rebound. Six copies are missing pages and some of these too are rebound. When you pursue, as these institutions have, the most important books you make allowances.
For the year just completed we did not know for sure until a few days ago how the top 500 books sold in 2012 ranked. For 2013 it’s easier. We can already say the Bay Psalm will be the most expensive book sold and possibly the most expensive book ever sold.
And a few thoughts further thoughts come to mind. The book should travel – to be displayed in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston. A lecture could be offered in New York at the 72nd Street Y and historians discuss it with Charlie Rose on Bloomberg Television. For Michael Moore, how about a filmed perspective? This book deserves the attention and can accomplish feats that few other printed things can: illuminate history and book collecting to an emerging generation of collectors. So, in my view this book can accomplish many things, refill the coffers at the Old South Church, earn commissions for the sellers, remind America of its history, and infuse a generation with the fire to collect. If it does these things it actually accomplishes what the congregation recently committed to do: the greatest good for the largest audience.
So here’s hoping.
Link to the Old South Church website
Link to the Old South Church's electronic copy of the Booke of Psalmes
The full text of the Parke-Bernet Sale in 1947
The full text of lot 847 in the Brinley Sale in 1879
The full description in the Crowinshield Sale in 1859