Published On: Wed, Nov 27th, 2013

David Rubenstein Buys Book Printed In 1640 For $14.2 Million At Sothebys

Myths and Realities of Private Equity: David M. Rubenstein

David Rubenstein / Getty

Yesterday, David Rubenstein went out in the evening and bought himself a book to read.

Quite usual you might say, even for a busy co-founder and co-CEO of giant private equity firm the Carlyle Group; maybe for bed time reading…

Not quite however, as this book is known as the “Bay Psalm Book” and it has quite a history. It cost him the king’s ransom of US$14, 165, 000 to buy and it is most unlikely to spend much time outside of a temperature-controlled vault, or on careful and secure display in museums and libraries. In fact it is the most expensive printed book ever to be sold at auction, and it went under the hammer to his bid last night at Sothebys.

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The Bay Psalm Book – title page, courtesy Old South Church

The auction record for any book actually goes to the Leonardo da Vinci Codex Leicester, Leonardo’s own personal notebook of scientific writings and diagrams, which was hand-written by him in “mirrored” Italian. Uniquely one-of-a-kind, it sold for US$30.8 million at the Christie’s auction house in 1994.

The Bay Psalm Book was printed in America in 1640 and now Mr. Rubenstein plans for it to be regularly displayed at libraries around the country. There are only 11 copies of the book known to be still in existence and the last time one sold was in 1947, when it sold for just US$151, 000 – or one hundred times less (though the currency then was worth a lot more) and also a record at the time.

David Rubenstein said in a statement today,

“I thought it was important to keep this historic American book in the country, ” … “I also thought I could expose more Americans to its significance – and the importance of books to our country – by having it displayed throughout the country at libraries which might not otherwise have a chance to display something quite so old and rare.”

It is wonderful that David Rubensttein loves old books, and also that he has the means to indulge his passion. In 2007 he paid US$21 million for another rare item, a handwritten 13th century original of the Magna Carta. He also bought this at auction at Sothebys and it set a record then too. He plans for it to be the star of the show at his new permanent David M. Rubenstein Gallery, which will be dedicated at Washington’s National Archives in December. This gallery was made possible through a US$13.5 million gift he also made to the National Archives.

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Original of the Magna Carta, dated 1297 – donated by David Rubenstein to the US National Archives

Since his latest purchase is so timely, perhaps the Bay Psalm Book may even go on show there too, for a time, though the primary theme of the new gallery, as the display of the Magna Carta itself implies, is all about the development of personal rights and individual liberties in America. This is a theme that is very dear to the heart of David Rubenstein.

The Bay Psalm Book came to Sothebys from the Old South Church in Boston, which itself plays a rich role in American history. Benjamin Franklin was baptized there and Samuel Adams was a member. The book had been printed in nearby Cambridge in the year 1640, and contains 150 psalms translated from the Old Testament by the Puritans. Its first printing included 1, 700 copies, though all but 11 have been lost.

The Old South Church owned two copies from the first edition, but needed to raise some money so it has given up one of them. “This book was not critical to our mission and we wanted to convert it into fuel for our ministries, ” said Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister and CEO of Old South Church, to Bloomberg News. “We have an extraordinary past. Our job today is the future of the church.”

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The Bay Psalm Book – courtesy Old South Church


David Rubenstein has already demonstrated his willingness to put his money where his mouth is in order to help spread a love of books in other concrete ways as well. Two months ago he made another donation, this time of US$5 million to support the annual Library of Congress Book Festival for another five years – doubling at a stroke his previous support for the same free annual public event.

At the time he stated that the event is a much-loved occasion not only for the people of Washington but from all over, and has brought the joy of reading to hundreds of thousands of people, … “It allows them to meet authors in person, discover new books and explore new genres, and it makes reading exciting for children – an uplifting way to provide them with a crucial skill for living” as Rubenstein summed it all up.

With the enormous impact of the internet age, some believe the era of the book is over, something that could even be self-fulfilling if we all forget how to read more than an on-screen summary of sometimes very complicated subjects. However we should all remember that books allow us to get past the summaries, to expand the capabilities of our brains and to inspire our imaginations to the fullest extent possible. We should therefore all applaud David Rubenstein’s efforts here and help wherever we can, even in our own local milieux.

About David Rubenstein

David Rubenstein was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina before going on to earn his law degree at the University Of Chicago Law School.

After graduation Rubenstein went on to practice law with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York, and later became domestic policy advisor to President Jimmy Carter during the late seventies.

After Carter lost the Presidency to Ronald Reagan, Rubinstein established his own private law practice, before going into partnership with William E. Conway, Jr. and Daniel A. D’Aniello to form the Carlyle Group in 1987 as an alternative asset management and investment company.

Rubenstein is estimated to have a net worth of US$3 billion, and is recognized as being a member of the Giving Pledge, a group of wealthy Americans who have pledged to donate more than half of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charities during their life time.

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