The First Printed Book in British America

Offered across three live auction sessions on 13 and 14 April 2021, Sotheby’s presented the Lipman Collection, comprising over 500 primary records, spanning more than 300 years of American history, and including letters, documents, books, broadsides, maps, atlases, pamphlets and newspapers. Featuring foundational figures of American history such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Abraham Lincoln among scores of others, the contents of the collection illuminate the events and moments that have defined the United States over the last four centuries, encompassing exploration and colonization, revolution, the establishment of a new nation, Civil War, abolition, emancipation, and much more.

While the contents of Ira Lipman’s library were expansive and wide-ranging, his true passion was the Revolutionary War, and the heart of his collection focuses on the turbulent fifty years from the beginning of the French and Indian War in 1754, to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. With its emphasis on primary materials, the Lipman Collection shows American history as it happened, showcasing first and early printings of vital documents including the Stamp Act, the Boston Port Bill, the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. Similarly, a remarkable series of ephemeral pamphlets and broadsides document public—and congressional—reaction to crucial events including Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr, and the assassination of President Lincoln.

Bay Psalm Book, Unique Copy of the Earliest Obtainable American Edition, printed in 1693. Sold $239,400.

Bay Psalm Book

One of the most significant works from the Lipman Collection is a unique surviving copy of the earliest obtainable American edition of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book produced and printed in the British New World (sold $239,400). Featuring the psalms hymns and spiritual songs of the Old and New-Testament, the present copy was printed in 1693 and was formerly in the library of Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges in the 1692 Salem witch trials, and his wife, Elizabeth.

The 1640 Cambridge, Massachusetts, Whole Booke of Psalmes, or Bay Psalm Book, was the first book printed in British America, the first book written in British America, and the first book printed in English in the New World. The Bay Psalm Book is a religious and cultural manifesto of the Puritan Fathers and a towering icon of the founding of the United States that was reprinted in both Great Britain and the British colonies well into the eighteenth century. In 2013, Sotheby’s sold a copy of the 1640 edition from the Old South Church in Boston for $14.2 million —a world auction record for a printed book.

The Declaration of Independence

One of the top lots on offer was a first book-form printing of The Declaration of Independence, hurriedly appended to the pseudonymous Genuine Principles of the Ancient Saxon, or English Constitution just days after the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration (sold $504,000). Printed on July 8, 1776, Bell’s edition is one of the rarest and earliest printings of the Declaration and while there are copies of Genuine Principles in a number of major libraries and historical societies, only three other copies have appeared at auction since the legendary Streeter sale in 1967.

The Lipman collection also included two extremely rare critical works of American Independence penned by Thomas Paine, the official propagandist of the insurgent colonial government. His iconic anti-monarchical pamphlet Common Sense was published in early January 1776 and was instrumental in turning popular opinion in the American colonies in favor of complete independence from Great Britain (sold $94,500). At the end of the same year, The American Crisis, one of the most influential polemics ever written, helped sustain the belief—among civilians and soldiers alike—that independence was both desirable and achievable (sold $327,600).


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