America's Oldest Book Joins the Ranks of Exorbitantly Priced Auction Items

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Europe is still suffering from harsh austerity measures and international youth unemployment is in double digits, but the luxury goods market is alive and well. Today, America’s first printed book will become the world’s most expensive, joining a list of superlatively ranked objects that have recently broken bidding records at auction houses across the globe.

The Whole Book of Psalmes was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640 and is expected to sell for a sum between $15 million and $30 million at a Sotheby’s auction on Tuesday. The Old South Church decided to sell the hymn book last December in order to raise funds for the church, opting to part ways with one of their two copies of the book. Just 11 of 1,700 original editions survive and the last time a copy was sold — in a 1947 auction — it netted $151,000.

The Bay Psalm Book (as it is alternately called) auction takes place just days after a dozen bottles of Romanee-Conti wine were sold for a record $474,000 at Christie’s International in Hong Kong. Earlier this month, a 59.60-carat pink diamond sold for a record $83 million in a Sotheby’s auction in Geneva, and a Francis Bacon triptych became the most expensive work of art to be sold at auction when it brought in $142.4 million in a Christie’s auction in New York.

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The confluence of record-breaking bids may signify growth in separate markets, however, rather than a sign that spending is out of control everywhere. According to The Washington Post, the price tag for Bacon’s work should not be surprising, as the return on fine art has been high in recent years and a rise in the global stock market means wealthy buyers may be more willing to invest. Reuters’ Felix Salmon makes the case that some buyers may be breaking taboo by flipping expensive works of art, and pushing the contemporary art bubble towards a popping point. And China, according to a spokesperson from Shanghai Wine Monopoly Bureau, “has become the world’s fifth-largest wine consuming country,” and hopes to gain an edge in the global wine market, explaining why a private buyer may be interested in dropping $400k on a single case.

Still, it’s hard not to see the spate of record-breaking sales, at least in this country, as representative of a growing income gap that has increased the wealth of the wealthy and is shrinking the middle class.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.